JEDDAH Saudi Arabia's advisory Shoura Council said on Monday that women should be allowed to vote and run as candidates in future municipal elections.
Saudi authorities announced in March that half the seats in municipal councils would in future be elected, a radical step in a country ruled by an absolute monarch that currently has no elected government institutions.
But they ruled out female candidates or voters. Local officials cited logistical difficulties in arranging sex-segregated polling stations.
Monday's Shoura Council statement said the council had agreed "that the Ministry of Rural and Municipal Affairs should take the necessary measures to include female voters in municipal elections, in accordance with Islamic Sharia."
"This was a general recommendation," said Mohammed Almuhanna, media spokesman for the Shoura Council. "It has nothing to do with the current elections but is rather a recommendation for future elections."
Saudi Arabia has no political parties or national parliament, and the Shoura Council's members are appointed by the king. Although its decisions are not binding, it has become a forum for debate, encouraged by King Abdullah's calls for political reform.
Hundreds of women around the kingdom have joined an online campaign called Baladi, Arabic for "My Country," in protest at their exclusion from the municipal elections.
In April, dozens showed up at voting registration centers in the capital city Riyadh, the port city of Jeddah and in the Eastern Province to demand their right to vote but were turned down by officials.
Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and need written consent from a male guardian -- father, brother, husband or son -- in order to travel, work, or even undergo certain medical procedures.
Religious police patrol the streets to enforce segregation of the sexes and ensure women are modestly dressed.
(Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Kevin Liffey)