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Women take high seat in Saudi politics

Updated on May 25, 2013

It is being described as a historic step, a quantum leap, a break in the Saudi sound barrier. The appointment of female members to the Shura Council in Saudi Arabia shows the enlightened stance of the Custodian of the Holy Places King Abdullah to modernize the Kingdom’s political institutions. It hails Saudi Arabia as one of the leading state in the region to support women rights and is one of the positive roads to political reform.

The appointment of 30 women on 11 January, 2013 to the Kingdom’s 150-person consultative body, made through a Royal Decree, is a first-time political development that sends strong signals in Saudi Arabia, the region, and the international stage that King Abdullah is a prime supporter of women rights and political participation in the Shura Council.

Political experts see this one as an important way to invigorate the council which has been in continuous existence since 1993 and appointed on four-year-term basis. The Kingdom has always had some form of Shura representation as early as 1924 when a National Council was established and become known as Shura Council in 1927 when it had 25 appointed members and consulted on a variety of important issues.

The King’s recent move to allow women into the participatory system puts the council in a new light, building on the 1993, 1997, 2001, 2005, and 2009 parliamentary terms where council members have gradually increased from 60 members to the present 150.

The women appointments make Saudi Arabia a leader in female political representation amongst all Arab parliaments, ahead of countries like Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon and Sudan. Their presence have come either, through political appointments, electoral means or designated quotas as in Jordan’s parliament where there are specific number of seats for women deputies in their Lower House of Parliament.

The Saudi Arabian move even places the Kingdom ahead of some liberal democracies where the vote for women parliamentarians have traditionally been low. Indeed Saudi Arabia jumps from 184th to 80 in terms of having total numbers of women in parliament, beating the United States, Ireland, Russia, India and Brazil.

It has been hailed by such international blocs as the European Union whose officials state the King Abdullah’s decree allowing women into the Shura Council is a major development towards women empowerment in the Kingdom.

The King said that 20% of Shura Council seats should be made up of female members, reinforcing this through the amendment of Article 3 of increasing the number of Council members to 150 and Article 22 of the statute governing the Shura Council System that talks about select committees, and safeguarding the role of women in them.

The Shura Council, a traditional Islamic, non-legislative body that advises the King and Council of Ministers on important pieces of legislation can become a real force of change, especially because of the new equilibrium that new exists in an assembly that has always been exclusive to males. Many experts argue the role of women would give greater boost to the council.

There was always an attempt to create a form of political participation regarding women, as their role became part of the international agenda. In the 2005-2009 term of the Shura Council for instance, 12 women served in the capacity as advisors to the consultative body on matters related to women, families and children issues.

Political observers in Saudi Arabia and in the Arab region see the appointments as a qualitative step involving transparent debate on major issues facing the Kingdom, showing a change of the times, a powerful symbol of going forward. The recent move was made after careful consultation with the Kingdom’s senior religious authorities who state that the appointment of women is in keeping with Islam and the teachings of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh).

Dr Mona S. Al Munajjed, a sociologist, author and adviser on social and gender issues, praised King Abdullah’s move and calls the appointments as a key turning point in the history of the Kingdom and an essential move toward galvanizing the role of women in society and Saudi national life. She adds that the King’s decree, gives women the tools to lead in the decision-making process.

The Shura Council has traditionally included members from different sections of society of academics, clerics, businessmen and former civil servants. Similarly, the new women appointees, 27 of whom hold doctorates, add a rich assortment to this political body for they include academics, scientists, those who run high-tech companies as well as those who have held office in international institutions. Dr Thuraya Obeid for instance, had a high-profile career working in the United Nations as Undersecretary-General and Executive Director of the UN Population Fund.

Such names continue such as Dr. Khawla Al-Kuraya, a professor of pathology, and director at the King Fahad National Center for Children’s Cancer and Research, Dr Thuraya Al Arrayed, a writer and journalist, Dr Hanan Al Ahmadi, an economics graduate and a doctorate in public health, and heads the women's branch of Saudi Arabia's Institute for Public Administration, and Dr Wafa M Taibah, an educational psychologist who previously served as ‘advisor’ to the Shura Council. They all look forward to their new positions and see it as significant developments in participatory politics.

As well, Dr Hayat Sindi, is seen as one of the world’s leading biotechnologists, and in 2012, was named one of Newsweek’s “150 women who shake the world” and named by Arabian Business as the 19th most influential Arab in the world, studying in King’s College London and Cambridge University in the UK. And the list goes on for these Saudi women are chosen from the elite stratums of society.

Interestingly as well, is the new to women appointments from the Royal family. Princess Sarah bint Faisal bint Abdel Aziz, a daughter of the late King Faisal, heads a charitable foundation and Moudhi bint Khaled bin Abdel Azziz, a daughter of the late King, is also the secretary-general of her father’s foundation. In contrast there are no male princess in the Shura Council.

No sooner has their appointment made, the new female members were sworn in and set about parliamentary business by joining all of the 13 select committees of the 6th term of the Shura Council that range from the Committee on Social Family and Youth Affairs, on Economic Affairs and Energy, Security, Education and Research, Cultural and Informational, Foreign Affairs, Health and Environment, Committees on Water, Technology and so on.

On some of these, there top positions were noticeable: Dr Thuraya Obaid, became deputy chairperson of the Human Rights and Petitions Committee, Dr Zainab Abu Talib, deputy chairperson of the Information and Cultural Committee and Dr Lubna Al Ansari, deputy chairperson of the Health Affairs and Environment Committee. Experts argue this in itself is proof they are being accepted in this traditionally male-dominated body.

They are expected to be a powerful force, joining in the debate in the chamber on many important issues facing the Kingdom and expected to bring to the focus topics not just related to personal status laws, full divorcee rights, widows, but of political developments, economic subjects, investments and many others.

It is really is the sky’s the limit. Dr Amal Al Hazzani, an Assistant Professor in King Saud University in Riyadh, argues the appointments represent a change in the cultural roots of Saudi society and would lead to a change in the status of women and create the principle of equal citizenship and a change in its features.

The road is now opened by non-other than the highest leadership in the land, King Abdullah. More positive changes are expected to be seen on the way like the fact that women would be able to run in the Kingdom’s Municipal elections of 2015.


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