Women in Saudi Arabia have won the right to vote for the first time.

It is a huge step forward for women in the Saudi Kingdom. The country's strict enforcement of Sunni Islamic law means that to this day, females are forbidden from driving and from leaving the country without the permission of a male guardian.

Activists both within and outside of the country have been campaigning for more rights for Saudi women for decades.

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King Abdullah made the announcement at the opening of the new term of the Shura Council, the formal body that advises the king.

He said: "Because we refuse to marginalise women in society in all roles that comply with sharia, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior clerics and others… to involve women in the Shura Council as members, starting from next term."

He added: "Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election and will even have a right to vote."

It is said that tension over the role of women in the kingdom has been growing in light of the Arab Spring.

The news will not be welcomed by the country's most conservative clerics, who exert considerable pressure on the ruling family to resist reform.

However, it is widely understood that King Abdullah has been pressing for political reforms for a while.

Saudi Arabia holds no elections beyond local level, with power almost completely restricted to the royal family. Nonetheless, the Shura Council, though purely advisory, is considered the most influential political body in the country.

The fact that women can now become Shura council members is an almost unprecedentedly giant leap towards equality in Saudi.

The reforms come into force after the municipal polls that are taking place this week. More than 5000 men will compete to fill half the seats in local councils – the other half are appointed by the government.

The next municipal elections – those for which women will be eligible to both run and vote – are due in four years' time.