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Saudi women on Shura Council

This is my story from Al-Ahram Weekly, that was published January 16, 2013:

Saudi women on Shura Council

The appointment of 30 Saudi women to Saudi Arabia’s consultative Shura Council by King Abdullah on 11 January took some Saudis by surprise because of the relatively large number of appointees. Until then, the council had been a purely male bastion of 150 members.

“I was thrilled and proud,” said Abeer Mishkhas, a Saudi journalist, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. “When I read the names, I was happy to see that a wide spectrum of women had been chosen. I hope they use their experience to push forward women’s issues, such as the rights of divorcees, driving and the harassment laws.”

The royal decree appointing the women specified that 20 per cent of the seats in the country’s Shura Council should be occupied by women, making Saudi Arabia jump in the ranks of countries that have women in parliament from 184th to 80th place, according to Gulf News, ahead of the US, Ireland, Russia, India and Brazil.

King Abdullah announced that he intended to appoint women to the Shura Council in a speech last September. One year earlier he had announced that women would be allowed to run and vote in the 2015 municipal elections. Since 2006, the council has had 12 women advisers.

“We made this decision because we refuse to marginalise women in Saudi society. We want to see them in roles that comply with Islamic Sharia and this has been done following consultations with many of our scholars who supported it,” the king said.

“Muslim women have always taken up positions that cannot be sidelined, be it through views or advice, since the time of the Prophet Mohamed.”

With a few exceptions, all the appointees have PhDs and are leaders in their fields of work. One of them, Thuraya Obaid, was appointed to a senior position in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2000, while another, Hayat Sindi, is one of the world’s leading biotechnologists.

In 2012, she was named one of Newsweek’s “150 women who shake the world”. “I am very honoured to be one of the first women selected for the Shura Council. We need to be present and to participate equally,” Sindi told the Saudi Gazette.

Some women activists had been pushing for half of the members of the council to be women, but others admitted that the 30 positions that Saudi women had attained through the royal decree might not have been achieved if they had been elected positions given the conservatism of the Saudi population.

Suhaila Zein Al-Abidine, a human rights activist, was one of those pushing for 50 per cent of the Shura seats to be filled by women, but she admitted that the 20 per cent quota was a good beginning.

“It’s a start. But this percentage has to increase for women to be effective in the council,” she told the Saudi Gazette.

“Ideally, elections would be the best way to fill the council,” Mishkhas said, “but realistically speaking women would not have had that much representation if elections had been held because of the influence conservatives have on society these days. But I believe the performance of these women will create a new reality at home and get people more accustomed to the idea.”

Two of the new appointees are princesses. Sarah bint Faisal bin Abdel-Aziz, a daughter of the late king Faisal and the head of a charitable foundation, is one of them, and the other is Moudhi bint Khaled bin Abdel-Aziz, a daughter of the late king Khaled and the secretary-general of his foundation.

Interestingly, there are no Saudi princes among the male members of the council.

Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council was established in 1993, when it had a speaker and 60 members. That number was increased to a speaker and 150 members in the 2005-2009 term.

Each member is appointed for a four-year term, renewable at the discretion of the king. Most of the members of the council are academics, clerics, businessmen or former civil servants.

The new women members will have a separate entrance and offices, an all-female staff, and a separate praying area. They will most likely interact with the male council members via video and audio links.

The council advises the king and the Council of Ministers on policies and legislation. It has no power to overturn legislation or to pass legislation without the approval of the king.

Democracy activists have long called for an elected council, much like the parliament in Kuwait, with full powers to pass legislation and question government ministers, but few Saudis expect this to come about any time soon.

Although women in Saudi Arabia have been celebrating this historic advance in their rights, they still face many restrictions, such as not having the right to drive or to travel abroad without the approval of their male guardians.

“The women have a tough time ahead of them. After all, some of the Shura members are very conservative, and it remains to be seen if the female members will be able to get their concerns taken seriously,” Mishkhas said.

“But the female members have such strong and adamant characters among them that have worked in international institutions, such as Thuraya Obaid, that they can definitely make use of that experience.”

“We need to work with other members of the council as a team,” Sindi told the Saudi Gazette. “We want to encourage women who are determined to work hard and encourage men to collaborate.”

Another newly appointed member, Hamda Khalaf Muqbil Al-Enizi, who is a professor at King Faisal University, told Arab News she would raise issues relating to the rights of women and children in the council.

“The presence of Saudi women in the council may lead in future to positions in the Council of Ministers,” she said.

Currently, no women are full ministers in Saudi Arabia, but Nora Al-Faiz, appointed by King Abdullah in 2009, is the deputy minister of education in charge of women’s education.