Women in Saudi Arabia have been given the right to vote, run for office and be appointed to governing councils by King Abdullah, the country’s 86-year-old ruler. Abdullah made the announcement on Sunday in a speech that was broadcast live on state television. Manal al-Sharif, the 32-year-old figurehead of a contingent of women who have openly defied Saudi Arabia’s much-discussed driving-ban for women, welcomed the move to extend the franchise. She called Abdullah a “reformer” and said the decision was “historic and courageous.” Men in Saudi Arabia, an ultra-conservative Muslim country existing under a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam, were first able to vote in municipal elections in 2005. Women will join them on their second trip to the polls Thursday, but since the nomination process is already closed, and no women will be on the ballot. The winners of the election fill half the seats in the country’s 285 municipal councils. The rest are appointed.