Saudi Arabia's Timid Flirtation With Women's Rights

Why incremental reform is about the most feminists can expect 

shura council banner.jpg
The chamber of Saudi Arabia's Shura Council. (Zainal Abd Halim/Reuters)

On Friday, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah made history when he named 30 women to the kingdom's Shura Council, an appointed advisory body that cannot enact legislation but is still the closest institution to a parliament in that country. He also amended the Shura Council's law to ensure that women would make up no less than 20 percent of the 150-person council going forward.

Friday's announcement did not occur in a vacuum. Before now, some women served in an advisory capacity, but not as full members, on the committee. In 2011, King Abdullah, known for relatively moderate views on women's roles in society, announced that women would be appointed to the Shura Council and that women would be able to run and vote in the country's 2015 municipal elections.

Nevertheless, Friday's follow-through is a sign of King Abdullah's seriousness about incrementally increasing women's participation. In a 2011 speech, King Abdullah introduced the decision as a vital step for keeping up with the times, saying, "Balanced modernization in line with our Islamic values, which preserve rights, is an important requirement in an era with no room for the weak and undecided people." He also explained that the decision to appoint women to the Shura Council and to allow them to vote and run in elections was made after consulting with religious scholars.

Much as when women from conservative Muslim countries including Qatar and Saudi Arabia competed in the Olympics for the first time this past summer, a considerable amount of attention is being paid to the logistics of women's participation in the Shura Council. The amendments allowing women to join the council specifically prescribe gender-segregating measures, ranging from separate office spaces to council chamber entrances to seating areas. As journalist and Saudi Arabia expert Thomas Lippman explains, "Even when [King Abdullah] moves boldly, he moves cautiously, in increments that the conservatives can be persuaded or forced to accept." Indeed, this gender segregation is an absolute prerequisite to women's participation in Saudi Arabia.

Reaction to the Shura Council is mixed. On Twitter, the hashtag "The new Shura Council does not represent me" materialized, a reminder that the Shura Council is unelected. Manal al-Sharif--a female activist who has shown great courage in advocating for Saudi women's right to drive--wrote on Twitter that "The amendments ignored Saudis' demands of electing the members and increasing the Council powers! It still cannot pass or enforce laws" (via POMED). Essam Alzamel, a tech entrepreneur with a significant Twitter following, wrote, "There are two types of parliaments: the kind that represents the people and the kind that represents the people but is not of the people." Just today, around fifty clerics opposed to the Shura Council decision turned up at the Royal Court to request a meeting with the king and one of his advisers, which they were not granted. This protest was notable, particularly given that Saudi Arabia's primary religious authorities have approved of the king's decision.

Despite the limitations of the Shura Council, the appointed women have their work cut out for them. As my friend, women's rights advocate and new Shura Council member Thuraya Arrayed said to Al Arabiya News, "I expect this decision to open doors for qualified women to take part in all fields and not just in politics but in all areas." Fellow new Shura Council member Thuraya Obaid, whose impressive career includes time as executive director of the UN Population Fund, told the newspaper Asharq Alawsat, " for those who do not accept this, this is a huge challenge for women to prove that their presence is an addition to, not lessening of, Saudi society." With female council members like these, this mixed-gender Shura Council may well pave the way to greater opportunities for Saudi women, however incrementally.

Thanks to my research associate, Thalia Beaty, for providing Arabic translations.

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