Long promised, yet only half-expected, the appointment of 30 women to Saudi Arabia’s 150-strong consultative assembly, Majlis al-Shura, in January, marked another key step in the gradualist reform strategy of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. However, the move has been lambasted by conservative figures opposed to their inclusion in the council on the one hand and pro-reform critics on the other who say it is not progress enough.
Inevitably, the fact that women will enter the building through a door of their own and be seated in a distinct area apart from their male colleagues has attracted considerable media attention. But the most important detail is that the women will be full-status members of the Shura council.
The council has had 12 women ‘advisers’ since 2006, but they were not given the profile or influence that male members enjoy. It was not until September 2012 that women were allowed to address the assembly, when two female senior health ministry officials briefed council members.
The January royal decree specified that women will henceforth be guaranteed a fifth of the council’s seats. This means they will be much more strongly represented in this nominated assembly than in the Kuwaiti and Omani national councils, which are elected but where only a few women have managed to win seats.
Female candidates will also be allowed to stand in local elections planned for 2015.
The king’s supporters see the appointments as the latest stage in a phased process of reform, through which he has been able to overcome the resistance of more conservative voices, who might have blocked an attempt to drive through sweeping changes.
King Abdullah managed to secure the support of several senior religious scholars for the changes to the make-up of the Shura council. However, conservative clerics staged a protest against the female appointees outside the royal palace in Riyadh and criticised the key royal adviser Khalid al-Tuwaijri – seen as a liberal. It is a balancing act that inevitably draws criticism from some pro-reformists, who feel the changes do not go far enough, in this case leaving the traditional system of rule by the Al-Saud family essentially intact and doing little in reality to enhance the role of women in society or the wider process of democratisation.
The irony is that the appointed women could not get into the council without permission from their male guardians
Maliha al-Shehab, independent Saudi writer
“When I heard about the appointment of women to the Shura council, I laughed,” says Maliha al-Shehab, an independent Saudi writer. “Women in Saudi Arabia are not just being deprived of being members of a paralysed council, which has no power or authority. In the course of more than two decades, this council has not played even a minor role in solving any issue people suffer from.”
For Al-Shehab, the problems facing Saudi women are more profound. “The significant grievance is that a woman does not have an independent identity, and she is not considered a mature person, so she has to get her male guardian’s consent to enjoy simple basic rights,” she says. “The irony is that those appointed women could not get into the Shura council without permission from their male guardians. So, this step is meaningless and its purpose is to give the world the impression that there are some reforms and improvements in the situation for women in Saudi Arabia.”
Outside the kingdom, the move has been praised as a step in the right direction.
A key test for the new female Shura members will be their capacity to influence national policy on wider issues that affect women living in Saudi Arabia, and their ability to push the government into promoting women’s rights more actively. The 30 appointees are mostly prominent and highly educated individuals such as the novelist Badriya al-Bishr, the educationalist Thuraya bint Ibrahim al-Aridh, the health administrator Hanan bint Abdul Raheem al-Ahmadi, computer scientist Ilham bint Mahjoub Hassanein and the former head of the UN Population Fund, Thuraya Obaid.
“All 30 women have been appointed from high society and are allies to the regime,” says
Al-Shehab. “None of them has faced what ordinary Saudi women have been suffering in basic daily life. None of them has encountered the consequences of the guardianship law imposed on Saudi women, curtailing them from exercising basic rights, such as getting married, travelling, or studying.
“If they are seeking reform, they should have chosen women council members from different backgrounds and they should have given women the right to drive.”
When it comes to priorities for action, initial comments by the female Shura members suggest they will focus first on socio-economic practicalities that affect Saudi women.
“There are many issues that require discussion and practical solutions; they include education, poverty, unemployment, human rights, the environment, justice and the judiciary,” said Al-Ahmadi after her appointment to the council. Time will tell how successful the women will be at instigating meaningful change.
The Shura Council in Saudi Arabia first appointed female advisers in 2006