updated 11/30/2005 5:34:25 PM ET 2005-11-30T22:34:25

Two businesswomen have become Saudi Arabia’s first female elected officials, a historic step in a deeply conservative country where women are largely barred from public life.

Saudi officials said Wednesday that Lama al-Sulaiman and Nashwa Taher had won election to the board of Jiddah’s chamber of commerce. Little information was available about the two women, who could not be reached for comment.

The chamber’s weekend elections were the first polls in Saudi Arabia in which women were allowed to run and to vote.

“It seems the decision ... came from very high up, and it’s likely going to be followed with more steps,” said Badreiah al-Beshr, a Saudi sociologist who follows women’s issues. “It was a preparatory move, but the road ahead is still a difficult one.”

Women were not allowed to vote or stand as candidates in the kingdom’s first nationwide municipal elections earlier this year. Electoral officials have said women might cast votes in municipal balloting in 2009.

The Jiddah Trade and Industry Chamber initially rejected the nomination of 10 women for its board of governors, but the kingdom’s trade minister order the chamber to open the door to female candidates, and allow women to vote, after a flood of petitions from businesswomen.

King Abdullah, who ascended to the throne in August and is seen as a reformist monarch, has said he wants to lighten restrictions on women. Women are prevented from driving cars or traveling abroad without permission of a male guardian.

Earlier this year, female business executives in the eastern city of Dammam were allowed to vote in their chamber of commerce polls, but only if a male guardian cast their ballots for them.

Al-Beshr said the government was approaching the issue of women in politics cautiously because of the kingdom’s long-standing and deeply conservative brand of Islam. The Saudi royal family retains absolute power and Saudis cannot hold public gatherings to discuss political or social issues.

Jiddah, a Red Sea port, is the kingdom’s second-largest city after Riyadh, the capital. Women make up about 10 percent of the 40,000 members of the Jiddah chamber. The two women will join 16 men on its board.

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