Key fact

At least 86 cases of adl have been identified between 2005 and 2010, almost half of them in Riyadh

Source: National Society of Human Rights

Four years from now, Saudi women will finally get the chance to vote in elections for the kingdom’s municipal councils. In two years, a select few could be appointed full members of the Majlis al-Shura, the consultative national assembly.

It’s not enough … and it does not satisfy the aspiration of Saudi activists after the Arab uprisings

Iman Qahtani, Saudi journalist

What remains to be seen is whether this will fuel a wider transformation of the role of women in what is still a deeply conservative country. A reminder of that fact came just days after King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud’s groundbreaking announcement, when a court sentenced a women to 10 lashes for taking part in a driving protest.

The king intervened to quash the punishment, but the court order was an indication of the traditionalist attitudes still held within the kingdom.

Falling short

“Some say that it’s a huge support for women in Saudi Arabia and it was unexpected,” says Iman Qahtani, a local journalist. “But others, mainly women, say it’s not enough … and it does not satisfy the aspiration of Saudi activists after the Arab uprisings. They say, ‘What’s the point of appointing some women to the Shura council without elections?’”

Critics point out the municipal councils have few powers and the new Majlis al-Shura members will be the royal family’s chosen nominees.

After the 25 September announcement, social networking sites such as Twitter were alive with jokes about how women would be reliant on their drivers to take them to vote. A senior cleric, Sheikh Abdullah bin Maneah, meanwhile, warned that women should not use photos of themselves in municipal election campaigns.

Female activists are pushing for reforms across a much wider social and economic agenda, in a country where rights and roles are far from equal between the genders.

Even where official restrictions have been lifted, they are in practise still often applied. For example, the formal requirement for women to be accompanied by a male relative or guardian when travelling away from home has been scrapped, but in reality, most are still chaperoned in this way.

Similarly, it is now six years since the kingdom’s grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh described adl – where a woman’s legal guardian prevents her from marrying the person of her choice – as a severe form of abuse, banned under Islamic law and punishable with imprisonment. Yet the National Society of Human Rights identified at least 86 cases of adl between 2005 and 2010 – almost half of them in Riyadh.

Social activists say many of the 2 million women over the age of 30 in Saudi Arabia have been denied the right to marry whom they wish and have opted to remain single instead.

Beyond the home, the employment opportunities available to women are limited. Arrangements designed to minimise the mixing of women and men in the workplace have tended to group women into more limited or subservient areas of activity. Men remain dominant in the key decision-making departments of both businesses and public sector firms. Although women now hold senior ministerial posts in countries such as Kuwait and the UAE, the most senior Saudi female in government is Norah al-Fayez, a junior education minister responsible for girl’s schooling.

Labour minister Adel Fakeih recently spoke of expanding the range of opportunities available to women, but has yet to set out detailed reform plans.

Promoting equality in Saudi Arabia

The government likes to describe the role of women in the kingdom as equal to that of men, but different. However, a 2008 review by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) questioned whether this amounted to true equality.

For most Saudi women, legal and social constraints still exercise a powerful hold. Perhaps the most powerful is the principle of guardianship (mehrem), which requires females to be accompanied by a spouse or male relative in their dealings with authority.

The CEDAW review committee argued that not only does guardianship limit women’s exercise of legal and family rights, but also “contributes to the prevalence of a patriarchal ideology with stereotypes and the persistence of deep-rooted cultural norms, customs and traditions that discriminate against women”.

But while CEDAW was highly critical, its role in increasing the pressure on Saudi Arabia to enhance women’s rights was in fact partly the result of action by the kingdom’s own government. In 2000, it signed up to the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. In doing so, it made itself available for the review process.

Political analysts say King Abdullah’s decision to appoint women as full members of the Majlis al-Shura could be viewed in the same way. It is a small change, but it will create pressure and a mechanism for further reform.

If members of the assembly ask for action on particular issues, such as the removal of the driving ban, this will give the king a stronger institutional base for overcoming conservative resistance to reform than if he simply initiates changes through royal orders or decrees.