Saudi King Abdullah said Sunday women in his country will be allowed to vote for the first time ever in nationwide elections scheduled four years from now.
The king in a televised speech to his advisory council said women will be able to run as candidates and cast ballots in the next municipal elections scheduled for 2015. He also pledged to appoint women to his advisory council.
"We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society and in every aspect, within the rules of Sharia," Abdullah said, referring to the Islamic law that governs many aspects of life in the kingdom.
The right to vote is by far the biggest change introduced by Abdullah, considered a reformer, since he became the country's de facto ruler in 1995 during the illness of King Fahd. Abdullah formally ascended to the throne upon Fahd's death in August 2005.
But the pledge falls short of what many Saudi women were asking for.
Many Saudi women and their supporters had urged Abdullah to allow them to vote in municipal elections being held Thursday. The government earlier had said that would happen, but then in recent months, refused to allow women to register as candidates or voters.
Officials explained it will take more time to create the right atmosphere for women to be able to take part, separate polling stations for men and women are needed to adhere to Saudi's strict Islamic code that calls for segregation of the sexes in public.
Abdullah said the changes would also allow women to be appointed to the Shura Council selected by the king that is currently all-male. The council, established in 1993, offers opinions on general policies in the kingdom and debates economic and social development plans and agreements signed between the kingdom and other nations.
In announcing the reforms, Abdullah sought to ground his decision in religion.
"Muslim women in our Islamic history have demonstrated positions that expressed correct opinions and advice," he said, citing examples from the era of Islam's Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.
He said the members of Saudi Arabia's clerical council, or Ulema, praised and supported his decision. He also acknowledged the yearning for greater social freedoms in the kingdom.
"Balanced modernization, which falls within our Islamic values, is an important demand in an era where there is no place for defeatist or hesitant people," he said.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press