Since taking over, King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia has been admired for his efforts to empower Saudi women. In stages, laws have been passed that defined and protected the rights of the marginalised females whose absolute dependence on their male guardians occasionally left them on the short end of the stick.
Recently, the king executed his commitment to ensuring a larger role for Saudi women in the political arena by appointing 30 women to the 150-member Shura Council, a body that debates issues pertinent to Saudi society and proposes laws that are then submitted to the Council of Ministers for further debate and approval.
In his decree, King Abdullah dictated that women shall comprise 20 per cent of the Shura and will be full participants in all active discussions and debates. There will be no lines drawn or barriers except for the physical ones, such as separate seating areas and separate entry doors. This is necessary in a society that is currently beginning to debate the various social and cultural traditions that are often interspersed with Islamic edicts.
Reaction to the king’s move has been positive throughout the country for the most part. Saudis have genuine affection for King Abdullah — a man they see as deeply concerned for their welfare and stability. Many husbands, fathers and brothers appreciate the opportunities today that have been granted to the womenfolk.
One can recall that prior to King Abdullah’s ascension, the role of the professional woman was primarily limited to teaching in all-female institutions or in the medical profession. There were no other venues for women whose calling was beyond those two professions.
As new fields of employment began to open up and increase, so did resistance from certain elements of society. These individuals, threatened by the increasing opportunities given to women in the marketplace, and by default more financial freedom and independence, began to espouse the evils that would soon envelope Saudi society if such actions were not reversed.
Women were suddenly seen everywhere working respectably in ministries, in banks, in retail industries and in law offices. The national airline and the hospitality industry, areas out of limits for women just a few years ago, today offer employment opportunities to Saudi women. Women have travelled out of the Kingdom for higher education and to learn skills and traits that would help build the nation.
The government’s continued efforts to protect and empower women appear to have won the consent of the majority. Through incremental steps, the government has all along displayed enough sense to ensure that the sensitivities of the majority of the Saudi public will not be disturbed and that the steps taken are in line with universal Islamic rulings.
Western analysts may dismiss these steps as being too little and progress as being too slow. They will want an instant change in the country — in line with democracies in the West.
However, in the climate of regional instability, the Saudi government’s approach towards modest steps forward seems to be working fine as more and more Saudis appreciate the efforts of the King to free women from their previous shackles.
That does not mean that there do not exist fundamentalist elements who are alarmed by the granting of personal freedom to women. Some 40 clerics who did not take kindly to the king’s decision to appoint women in the Shura Council staged a protest outside the Royal Palace in Riyadh. One cleric stated that the decision represented “dangerous changes in the country and these latest appointments to the Shura Council do not represent philanthropists and good people. These appointments are not representative of the whole society”.
Another stated that they had gathered for an audience with the head of the Royal Court to offer him advice, implying that the message of their unease should reach the King. Their opposition to this move is not surprising as they have been objecting, without success, to a host of previous government decrees that granted women Islamic rights. Such clerics no longer represent all of the Saudi people as displayed by the positive acceptance of the majority of Saudi citizens of the King’s decision to place women in the Shura Council. They are simply minor pockets of resistance in a sea of change that is ever so dynamic.
There has also been criticism from some quarters that this was a token move, to appease critics who lament the lack of fundamental rights for women. It will only remain token if the appointed women do not fully take advantage of their presence in the council and push for further reforms on issues that not only relate to women, but to the entire Saudi society. The women selected come with an impressive portfolio of qualifications and skills and it will indeed be a major disappointment if they do not choose to exercise the confidence shown in their selection and execute their duties to the maximum.
King Abdullah, in granting women more rights, once said: “We refuse to marginalise women’s role in Saudi society.” There is no going back.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.