Friday, 21 June 2013

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Inquiry & Analysis|986| June 21, 2013

Women's Rights In Saudi Arabia: Historic Nomination Of Women To Shura Council – Alongside Harsh Action By Regime Against Women's Rights Activists

By: Y. Admon*


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On January 11, 2013, for the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia –  where women have no right to drive and are still required by law to obtain the escort and approval of a male guardian for almost every step that they take – King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz appointed 30 women to the Shura Council.
While this decision by the king and its subsequent implementation, reviewed in depth in the following report, appear to represent a significant leap forward for women's rights in the kingdom, they must be understood in the context of another event – a harsh move by the Saudi regime that belies this ostensible progress and renders it meaningless. Earlier this month, two prominent Saudi women's rights activists, Wajeha Al-Huweidar and Fawzia Alj-'Uyouni, were sentenced to 10 months in prison for attempting to bring food to a Canadian woman imprisoned in her home with her small children without food by her Saudi husband (see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5338, Saudi Women's Rights Activists Wajeha Al-Huweidar, Fawzia Al-'Uyouni Sentenced To Prison For Trying To Help Canadian Woman Living In Saudi Arabia, June 17, 2013). 


The king's decision means that henceforth women can submit their candidacy to the Shura Council, participate as members in council deliberations, and play an active role in council decision making that affects all strata of Saudi society. The new councilwomen also take part in the Shura committees, and three of them have been appointed deputy chairs of these committees.
It should be noted that the Shura Council is not democratically elected but is appointed by the king. The women appointed to the Shura Council are influential figures in Saudi society and worldwide; two are princesses of the royal family.
The decision to incorporate women into the Shura Council has received support from elite circles in Saudi Arabia, including clerics, Shura members, and numerous columnists in the government press. The measure apparently also enjoys the support of Saudi society in general, as indicated by a survey conducted in Saudi Arabia two months following the announcement that women would be appointed. A sample of 200 men and 2,000 women revealed that 73.5% of the women and 69.9% of the men favored women joining the council.
At the same time, some clerics opposed the decision, claiming that it harmed Islam and violated the rules of shari'a, including the prohibition on ikhtilat (men and women mingling). The reaction of the Grand Mufti, Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz Aal Al-Sheikh, was noteworthy and surprising.  Although the Council of Senior Clerics, Saudi Arabia's top religious institution, headed by the mufti himself, backed the decision, the mufti did not express support for it. In fact, in one of his sermons he warned that it would bring about gender mixing at the Shura Council. Previously, in an earlier declaration, the mufti had gone so as far as to oppose the king's intention to nominate women to the Shura Council.

King 'Abdallah: 20% Of Shura Council Members Will Be Women

On January 11, 2013, Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz issued a decree amending several articles of the Shura Council law. The changes included a reassembly of the Shura Council for a four-year period beginning February 19, 2013, and the appointment of 30 councilwomen for the first time in the kingdom's history. According to the new law, "the Shura Council will be made up of a chairman and 150 members selected by the king, who possess knowledge, experience and qualifications; women will comprise at least 20% of the members. The members' rights, duties and affairs will be determined by a royal decree." The decree also states that the king consulted a large number of clerics, who ruled that Muslim law permits appointing women to the Shura Council, as long as they obey its rules, such as wearing a hijab, sitting separately from the men, and as long as separate entrances and offices are assigned for them.
Statements By The King At The Swearing-In Ceremony
At the Shura Council swearing-in ceremony, held February 19, 2013, King 'Abdallah wished the new councilwomen luck and told all the Shura Council members: "I am happy to meet you at the opening of the first year of the sixth session of the Shura Council, the first to include women... Know that your role in the Shura Council... is to represent the various sectors of Saudi society... which requires you to contribute and act wisely in dealing with any issue presented to you." At a special reception for the women members, sponsored by the king's wife, Princess Hessa Al-Sha'lan, the princess said that the female members will constitute added value in the Shura Council thanks to their considerable knowledge and abilities.
The new councilwomen being sworn in (image: 
Al-Sharq, Saudi Arabia, February 20, 2013)
The women of the Shura Council (image:

Who Are The Women In The Shura Council?

All the women appointed to the Shura Council have academic degrees, mainly in medicine and science. Some have won awards for their achievements in those fields and have worked for international institutions. Among them are figures who are influential in Saudi Arabia and worldwide, and who have often voiced their intention to promote the cause of women in the kingdom. Two of them are members of the royal family – Princess Sarrah bint Faisal bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Sa'ud and Princess Moudi bint Khalid bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Sa'ud.
Councilwoman Dr. Thuraya 'Obeid, deputy chair of the Shura Council Human Rights and Petitions Committee, has served in senior roles inside the kingdom and outside it. During this year's Al-Janadriyah national heritage and culture festival, she was selected by King 'Abdallah as Woman of the Year (the first woman so designated in Saudi Arabia), and was also awarded a medal of honor and excellence by the king's son, Prince Mut'ab, minister of the National Guard. Of her selection as Woman of the Year, 'Obeid said that it would promote the pioneering role of the woman in Saudi Arabia, and that it was a sign of recognition of the Saudi woman's efforts in recent years.
Following her appointment to the Shura Council, she said that the incorporation of women into the council is a new experiment that will be examined under a microscope, "especially since the expectations are too great to be realized all at once." She stressed that the women will voice their opinion not just on matters relating to women, but on all topics addressed by the council.
Dr. Thuraya 'Obeid (image:
Dr. 'Obeid receiving a medal of honor (image: 
Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2013)
Shura Council member Salwa Al-Hazaa, an ophthalmologist and the first Saudi woman to be awarded a professorship by a U.S. university, has won many prizes for her medical research and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2005 as one of the world's most influential Arab women. She told the international Arab magazine Al-Majalla that the decision to appoint 30 women to the Shura Council was brave and would involve Saudi women – whom she noted constitute half of society – in the country's affairs and develop not just the Saudi woman and family, but the country as a whole. She said that the inclusion of women in the Shura Council will prove to Saudi society that women, like men, can take part in decision-making and shoulder responsibility in matters concerning the country. She added that problems relating to family, women's status, and women's unemployment will head the Shura Council's agenda.
Salwa Al-Hazaa (image:
After being sworn in, Shura Council member Dr. Lubna Al-Ansari, a family physician by profession, said that the oath taken in front of King 'Abdallah constituted national recognition of the role of Saudi women. She said that King 'Abdallah is showing remarkable support for women by taking steps to make their voice heard and to involve them in all areas of life. She added that the women's presence in the Shura Council alongside the men signifies that they have an equal role and enjoy equal opportunities, and added that she intends to focus on the areas of health care and human rights.
Lubna Al-Ansari (image:
According to Councilwoman Dr. Fadwa bint Salama Abu Marifa, a mathematician, time will prove King 'Abdallah's decision to appoint women to the Shura Council correct; she added that he would not have taken this step had ne not believed in the abilities of the Saudi woman. She revealed that underage marriage is the first issue that she intends to raise in the council.

Shura Council Members: The Decision Is In Line With Social Reforms

Shura Council members praised the decision to appoint women to the council and said that it was in line with the political, social and economic development in Saudi Arabia. Shura member Dr. Hamed Al-Sharari said that the incorporation of women demonstrates King 'Abdallah's faith in their abilities and in their academic, mental, cultural, and managerial maturity. According to him, the decision sends a message that Islam is not an obstacle to the participation of Muslim women in all walks of life.
Shura member Dr. 'Abdallah Al-Zafiri said that the decision reflects the position of the Saudi leadership, which stresses the woman's right to be an active participant in the Shura Council and assist in decision-making. Another member, Dr. 'Abdallah Nassif, remarked that the decision followed comprehensive study and consultation with clerics, adding that the woman is a basic and active component in Saudi society, and therefore must be involved in the development and decision-making processes.

Shura Deputy Speaker: The Councilwomen Will Be Able To Head Shura Committees

The first Shura Council session attended by the women, held on February 24, 2013, dealt, among other issues, with presenting the heads and deputy heads of the Shura Council committees. So far, none of the female Shura members have  been appointed to head  committees, but three have been appointed deputy heads: Dr. Thuraya 'Obeid to the Human Rights and Petitions committee, Dr. Lubna Al-Ansari to the Health and Environment committee, and Dr. Zainab Abu Taleb to the Committee of Culture and Media Affairs.
Shura Assistant Speaker Dr. Fahad Al-Hamad called for working towards the successful integration of the women in the Shura Council: "The entry of this number of women into the council, based on the decision of our first statesman [i.e., the king], obliges the citizens, the loyal [subjects] and anyone who cares for this homeland to contribute to the success of this experiment, each in his own field." He added that in the future, women might head Shura Council committees, if they submit their candidacy and are elected by the committee members.

Religious Controversy Over The Decision

The decision to appoint women to the Shura Council sparked controversy within the Saudi religious establishment. Some clerics supported it, claiming that it is sanctioned by the shari'a because the Prophet Muhammad would consult with his wives and because Islamic history has seen many women who served as advisors. Conversely, others objected to the decision and called it contrary to Islam.
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