By Samar Fatany
19 January 2013
The participation of women in the Shoura Council will end an era of discrimination against women and promote their integration into the political and social process. Thirty distinguished, well-qualified women with advanced degrees have at last been nominated to become official members of the Shoura Council with the same rights as their male counterparts. Hopefully they will have enough confidence to stand up for the rights of the underprivileged and will be able to effectively address the many issues that need urgent attention to help our nation prosper and develop.
As officials of the advisory body that reports directly to Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah, they are expected to boldly address the challenges facing the Kingdom today and come up with recommendations for new policies and scientific solutions to create a better environment for our fast-growing younger generation, and to deal with unemployment, housing, transportation, health services and many other issues that are keeping us behind the more advanced countries of the world.
Previously the council had 12 women advisers who were only consulted on matters related to women, families and children and their presence was not very effective. Today, the public expects much more from the new members who will have equal rights to engage in transparent debates with their male counterparts in the Council.
The participation of women in the Shoura faces many challenges. Gender segregation in the Council was a topic of public debate. Many professional women view this policy as a form of discrimination and they feared that such a rigid policy would limit their role in the Council. When the decision to appoint women to the Shoura Council was announced, it was not clear how they would enter the building and where they would be accommodated in the chamber. The accomplished and well-qualified women would not have appreciated screens being put up to keep them apart from the men. Neither would they have been comfortable with the idea of conducting debate via an internal communication system.
However, to our great relief the government has made it clear that women Shoura members will truly have the same rights as their male colleagues. They will enter through the main lobby and not a back door, and they will be assigned seats in the same chamber with their male counterparts. However, they will have separate offices and a staff of women employees will be assigned to facilitate an adequate segregated work environment.
Women in Saudi Arabia will finally have a voice in government. They will be given the opportunity to outline recommendations for better national policies and for innovative strategies to implement reforms.
It is unfortunate that there are many sceptics who doubt the role of women in the Council. They continue to question their effectiveness and their ability to influence change. It is equally discouraging to be confronted with hardliners who reject the presence of women there. They have already started a campaign against them and are openly protesting their membership in the Shoura, calling it un-Islamic.
Meanwhile, the progressive and professional members of our society are more hopeful and are eager to support the political involvement of women and to trust in their ability to support King Abdullah’s reform movement and affect change in Saudi Arabia.
The inclusion of qualified women who are academics, scientists and human rights activists in the decision making process is a historic development of great significance. All professional women in the Kingdom are united in their support for those women chosen to be members of the Shoura Council and they look forward to the further participation of Saudi women in public life. However, they all believe that the only way to make the membership of women effective is by recognizing their participation as experts and opinion leaders representing all of society and not just the marginalized half of the Saudi population. The media must exert greater effort to raise national awareness about the political role of women and encourage their participation in the Shoura Council.
The experienced women in the Shoura Council are expected to promote the activities of civil society to help decision makers face ground realities. Their participation in the decision making process will enable them to confront discriminatory policies against women, namely the reluctance to support women in leadership positions, the legal guardianship rule, the strict culture of segregation within society, and the opposition to women driving.
The newly appointed women members are also expected to support the calls for a codified system to ensure a uniform application of Shariah laws to protect women who suffer injustice and discrimination at the hands of hard-line judges. They are expected to speak in the name of victims who suffer from rigid interpretations of Islam in the form of cases of extreme jail sentences and floggings, child marriages, domestic abuse, child custody issues, and divorce on the grounds of tribal incompatibility or tribal laws that are incompatible with Islam and a modern lifestyle.
The women in the Shoura Council will be in a position to influence recommendations that are submitted directly to King Abdullah. It remains to be seen how effective they will be. The chosen experts have been honoured with this post to serve the interests of all citizens. They have our trust and our expectations are high. We urge them to make a difference and not to let us down.
Samar Fatany is a Saudi radio journalist.