By Samar Fatany
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia: The recent decision by Saudi King Abdullah to allow women to run and vote in municipal elections and become members of the Shura Council, a parliament that acts as an advisory council to the King but has no legislative powers, has huge implications for the status of women in Saudi Arabia and has provided them with hope for what they may accomplish with their new roles.
In his September 26 inaugural speech at the Shura Council, King Abdullah rejected the marginalization of women in all sectors and encouraged their participation in political life. Citing examples of prominent women throughout Islamic history, his speech showed great determination to empower Saudi women and end attempts to undermine their role in the name of Islam. The King stressed the need to modernize society and attacked those who opposed the inclusion of women in decision-making processes.
King Abdullah’s decision has followed several statements in which he publically supported the integration of women into the workforce and welcomed the contributions of women to the economic prosperity of the country.
Legalized discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia has continued over several decades due to the influence of religious hardliners who misinterpret Islamic concepts. Some decision makers have used distorted Islamic rulings to support their conservative ideas, for example that women should not participate in nation-building, should remain inside their homes and should not have any role in the country’s future.
But the participation of women in the Shura and municipal councils will finally provide women with the opportunity to end the discrimination against them in the public and private sectors.
They will be able to exert pressure on the government through their lobbying within the Shura, and provide official recommendations addressing the challenges that have hindered their progress, such as the ban on women driving, the reluctance of the public to support women in leadership positions, the strict culture of segregation within society, the niqab (a face veil worn in addition to the headscarf) which can compromise the level of efficiency and professionalism of women’s careers, and discriminatory policies at some workplaces.
Women in the Shura can also serve the interests of women currently in the workforce by pushing for adequate maternity leave, reasonable working hours, onsite nurseries and equal pay.
Women council members could also promote the advancement of women’s status in society by the very fact that they will demonstrate that women can participate in and shape public life. Their newly recognized positions could promote a greater respect for women as they face the challenges of modern life.
Many Saudi women hope that women in the Shura will be able to challenge extreme religious rulings that are incompatible with Muslim women’s realities in today’s world. Among the issues that they could raise would be the need for a codified system to ensure a uniform application of Islamic laws. This would allow women to become familiar with their legal rights in Islam and not be at the mercy of the whims of family court judges, some of whom sanction domestic abuse or deliberately rule in favor of an abusive male guardian simply because he is a man.
As a first step, the women in the Shura will be expected to call for the elimination of laws governing legal guardianship, which give men rights over their wives, daughters, etc., and to address the injustices toward women in cases of unjust or disproportionate jail sentences, floggings, child marriages, domestic abuse, child custody or divorce.
The women in the Shura could also have a significant impact by advocating women’s participation in governmental and managerial positions. Together with other parts of civil society, such as the chamber of commerce or human rights organizations, the female council members could also inform male politicians and managers about the realities of women who suffer from discrimination and encourage them to work for change.
The challenges facing women are still overwhelming. And it may take another generation — or even two — to achieve the shift in the role of women in Saudi society that many of us have long desired. However, the inclusion of women in the Shura Council is a significant first step towards a society where women can assume leadership positions in public life and achieve proper justice.
Samar Fatany is a chief broadcaster and journalist in the English service of Radio Jeddah and a social activist who has been involved in fighting extremism and enhancing the role of women and youth in Saudi society. She is also a columnist for Arab News and the author of three books. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).