Saudi king swears in women into Shura Council

30 women sworn in to previously all-male council; King Abdullah faces criticism from conservatives.

Saudi women in Riyadh (photo credit: REUTERS/Fahad Shadeedw)
Saudi women in Riyadh
(photo credit: REUTERS/Fahad Shadeedw)
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah swore in 30 women into the previously all-male Shura Council last week as criticism mounts from conservative religious figures and Westerners for going too far, or not far enough.
The Council has 150 members and is not a legislative body, but advises the government.
Westerners have criticized the announcement for not going far enough, noting that women are still discriminated against in Saudi society.
Brandon Friedman, a Lecturer at Tel Aviv University and a researcher at its Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, told The Jerusalem Post that he does not agree with many Western analysts who criticized the move as worthless since the Council can recommend legislation and “decision makers in the royal family take its recommendations seriously.”
He says that the women that were chosen are all very accomplished with many holding PhDs and they represent the best Saudi Arabia has to offer. However, the group is not representative of women in the country. He also notes that the women are united in overturning the driving ban on women.
In an article he wrote for the Moshe Dayan Center publication Tel Aviv Notes in January, he writes that the Council was established in 1992 and drafts five-year development plans, which influence the country’s annual budget. Since 2005, it has had the power to summon government officials for questioning and propose new laws.
The article quotes the Saudi backed London based Asharq Al-Awsat on possible ways for implementing the change: “(1) moveable screens, often used for families in Saudi restaurants; (2) a glass partition that is a one-way mirror, common at Saudi universities in areas where female students wait for their drivers; or (3) a fence made of wood with Islamic patterns, as is common in the windows of some buildings in the old part of Jeddah.”
Friedman adds that the issue of mixing the sexes in public is still a sensitive issue and that the Saudis are implementing a slow-incremental approach, though he says, “having women make up 20 percent of the Council is a serious change. What they have done is make a change without jumping into the deep end of the pool.”
Of course, this change does not meet Western standards, but it must be seen within the context of a very conservative Saudi Society, he says.
Saudi Arabia should be judged by its own “history and social mores, and not some Western standard. And it is not clear to me that the Saudis are aspiring to achieve such a standard in any case.”
The driving issue has illustrated the conflict. Some religious leaders came out against women driving.
Friedman mentions that one sheikh, Nasser al-Omar, came out explicitly against because he considered it a “slippery slope,” which would lead to Westernization.
The question is according to Friedman – does this represent meaningful change or “is it merely a means to lift Western pressure on the Saudi family in attempts to ease Western and internal pressure in the wake of the Arab Spring?” Friedman believes that the changes are more than “token gestures,” and that King Abdullah is trying to slowly institute some social change.