Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has appointed 30 women to the adviser body of the government, but there are still doubts that the move represents a true disposal to grant greater liberties to women.
It has been 80 years since King Abdulaziz—or Ibn Saud—conquered the bulk of the central Arabic region and founded the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In that time, no woman has been in a political office in the country. That changed in 2013.
On 20th February, King Abdullah swore in 30 women to the Shura Council, the advisory body of the Saudi government, which had previously been exclusively comprised of men. The council advises on new laws and functions as a parliament, meaning that these women—university graduates, princesses and activist—will personally recommend the King on new decrees. They account for one fifth of the 150 counsellors elected by King Abdullah for the Shura.
The decision to allow women into such positions was first announced in September 2011. At the time, the Arab Spring was at a peak: Libya was in a deadlock war on the outskirts of Tripoli; and the President of neighbour Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had just escaped an assassination attempt. The tide of public opinion was changing across the Arabic world. In response, King Abdullah vowed to women the right to vote and stand as candidates in the next municipal ballot, in 2015.
For a kingdom ruled under the ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism, this was a milestone for women empowerment. Wajeha al-Hawaidar, a prominent Saudi female activist, explained the breakthrough as a possibility to “change the image of women in society”. However, there are still doubts about the real-world effect this decision will have for Saudi women. “I think it’s not enough. It’s not going to affect our lives as ordinary women—our daily life, going to work, finding a job, getting an education,” al-Hawaidar added.
Yet the sexes will still sit separately: they will have to enter the council building through special gates; sit in reserved seats and offices; and pray in special worshipping places.
Therefore, assigning women to the Shura Council may not represent the change that many are calling for. The council does not have any political power, serving only as a recommending body for the King. It might influence, but it will never be as persuasive as the conservative clerics of the Islamic monarchy, who are unsettled by the decision of letting women into political arena.
Changes after 80 years
King Abdullah stated “We refuse to marginalise women in society in all roles that comply with sharia.” Indeed, it raises a question: if the roles comply with sharia, why did it take 80 years to apply them?
Women’s rights played a small, but significant part in the Arab Spring. Take for instance the role of women in the veil burning protests in Yemen; the work as organisers, protesters, bloggers, activists and supporters of the Egyptian Tahrir Square uprising; and the formation of a Kurdish women’s battalion in Syria.
The revolutions in the Middle East brought women to the frontline of the demonstrations, not only standing beside men, but fighting for their own fragile freedoms. Thus, the Arab spring proved to be a movement easily triggered: a youngster can spark an uprising as much as a woman or any other person.
Ravaged by the winds of the revolution, Saudi Arabia also tasted a bit of a freedom fighting in June 2011, when women deliberately defied the Islamic law by driving cars all alone. It was a signal that the transformations in the region were spreading swiftly enough towards a “point with no return”.
For Saudi Arabia, the Arab spring came as both a blessing and a curse as it threatened stability in the region. A truly massive uprising, with different factions struggling to overthrow the regime, would pose as the nightmare King Abdullah is looking to avoid. Crushing demonstrators and civilians would be a huge set back for the kingdom’s external influence, consistent with its status among Western governments. On the other hand, the Arab spring saw the ousting of unpopular dictators in favour of regimes that share the same values as the Saudi’s. However, many of these dictatorships are being replaced with Islamic movements who are instating strict sharia law. Whilst, the women in Saudi Arabia may have benefitted, it’s yet to be seen whether the women of the Arab Spring will see any increase in liberty.
Egypt and Tunisia are perfect examples of women’s lost freedoms after they fought side-by-side with men to restore them. The number of rapes and sexual assaults is growing; the role of women in society is being confined to their families and homes; and many women are still treated as second-class citizens in the society.
For better or worse, the threat of revolt in the region led to King Abdullah to implement cautious reforms concerning women. The Shura Council appointments are a U-turn from the usual portrayal of Saudi women and policy, but what has yet to be proved is if these changes represent a visible change to their daily lives.