Women are to be appointed to Saudi Arabia’s consultative Shura Council for the first time, according to a royal decree.
The announcement is part of a new legislation to reform the senior advisory body, which until recently maintained an all-male board of members. In an amendment to an article in the Council’s statue, women will now on represent 20% of the Council’s 150 seats.
Among the 30 women appointed by King Abdullah, the Saudi ruler, are two princesses, human rights activists and a former executive director of the UN Development Programme.
The measure has been welcomed as a historic moment in the push for greater gender equality in Saudi Arabia, a kingdom where the rights of women are largely curtailed by the strictures of Islamic Shariah law.
Saudi women are forbidden from driving, are excluded from positions of public office and require permission from a male relative or ‘guardian’ to be able to work or travel.
Critics have viewed the appointments as little more than a symbolic gesture, highlighting the point that the appointed women will have little effective legislative power. As a purely advisory body, the Shura Council can merely offer advice to both the king and to ministers, but is unable to form or veto legislation.
They also point out that the appointments are subject to certain conditions. In an effort to segregate its male and female members, women will be seated independently within a special section of the council and will be required to enter through a separate door from that of their male colleagues. They must likewise show themselves to be “committed to Islamic Shariah disciplines without any violations.”
Many thus argue that the restrictions on the social and political freedoms of the vast majority of women remain unaltered by the ruling.
Yet, although the new appointments may appear to be of little consequence to ordinary Saudi women, their significance as part of a larger, long-term trajectory of change should not be underestimated.
King Abdullah has made important, albeit cautious moves towards reform since coming into power in 2005, and the appointments to the Shura Council should be viewed as an inherent part of this progression.
In all areas of society, Saudi women are beginning to effect significant change. In 2009, Norah al-Fayez became the first woman to be appointed a ministerial post, when she became deputy minister for women’s education.
Such advancements are not limited to the political sphere. In a momentous occasion at the London Olympics last summer, Sarah Attar, middle-distance runner,became the first female to represent Saudi Arabia in Olympic athletics.
Reform in an ultra-conservative state such as Saudi Arabia will always be slow. This is after all, a country which still attaches electronic tracking devices to its female citizens upon leaving the kingdom. But steps towards reform from above, however symbolic it may seem, has the potential to effect positive and lasting transformation within society as a whole.
Any change is a development in the direction of progress.