The attention of the world community turned to Saudi Arabia last week, as the controversy surrounding the execution of a young Sri Lankan maid reached a crescendo. Riyadh has pushed back against any allegation of human rights violations, arguing it had done everything that was legally possible to save the young woman’s life. But that is not the only reason Saudi Arabia has been in the news recently. Last Friday, King Abdullah issued a decree mandating the inclusion of women in the country’s consultative assembly. The decree is the latest in a series of steps the Saudi monarchy has taken to increase the participation of women in Saudi society. Most of the commentary surrounding the news was complimentary, although some were quick to point out that women’s rights in Saudi Arabia still have a long way to go.
In an article explaining the significance and reach of the decree, Al Arabiya news service wrote: “King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia issued Friday a historic decree allowing women to be members of the kingdom’s previously all-male Shura Council for the first time. The decree amended two articles in the council’s statute introducing a 20 percent quota for women in the country’s 150-member Shura Council, and the king appointed 30 women to join the consultative assembly. The assembly, whose members are appointed by the king, works as the formal advisory body of Saudi Arabia. It can propose draft laws following which it would present them to the king, who, in turn, would either pass or reject them.”
The reaction, as previously noted, has been positive, and has come from both inside and outside of Saudi Arabia. Asharq Alawsat’s Mshari Al-Zaydi, for example, calls the royal decree ‘exceptional’: “Saudi Arabia is entering a new era in terms of its political and social culture....Friday 11th January 2013 will go down as a historical day in the life of Saudi women in particular, and in Saudi politics, culture and society in general....In Saudi society, there are certain figures seeking to ignite problems regarding the issue of women, based on mistaken perceptions of the historical nature and role of women in Arab and Muslim society....The truth is that there is a clear element of fabrication when it comes to the problems of women, not only in Saudi society but in many Arab and Islamic countries.”
The Saudi daily Arab News has several articles and op-eds lauding the move. In one such commentary, Mohammed Fahad Al-Farthi puts the decree in the context of a broader progressive era for Saudi women: “The move is in line with the remarkable progress achieved by Saudi women over the past few years, especially in the field of education. King Abdullah has given equal opportunity to Saudi women, like their male counterparts, to pursue their higher studies in reputable international universities, providing them with scholarships and other benefits. This has increased the number of highly qualified women in Saudi society. The king’s new decision is in line with the ‘gradual progress’ policy adopted by the Saudi leadership.”
The editorial of the UAE-based daily The National also sees the decree as a sign of progress, but cautions that much remains to be done to really bring the women’s rights commensurate to their importance in the society: “Since assuming power in 2005, King Abdullah has taken gradual, steady steps towards reforming women's rights. And he's done so amid steep opposition from conservative clerics....[but] Saudi is still far behind the curve. Women face real obstacles working, travelling or opening a bank account without male guardian approval. They also have limited opportunities....Improving women's rights in Saudi Arabia will take time. It won't be until 2015 that Saudi women will have the right to run and vote in elections. But as slow as steps towards equality have been, this decision is another milestone. “
Gulf Today’s Hichem Kaoui, however, argues that the progress notwithstanding, the struggle between the conservative and progressive forces in the kingdom is far from over and can only be expected to get more heated in the future: “The list published by the media actually shows “Dr” (abbreviation of Doctor) before each name. There is no doubt that all those honorable women are academically equal to their male peers....However, the struggle between the progressive and liberal forces and the ultra-conservative traditionalists is not yet over. We expect to witness more of these events in the next days. Something is sure, though: the Saudi society is changing; and to stay powerful and legitimate, any government in the world has to anticipate the changes in a way allowing the power elite to become their spearhead.”
There is reason to believe that in the long term the balance between those two forces is tilted in favor of the progressive. In an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed sees this most recent decree as giving that imbalance a further impetus forward: “If the government’s plan for women succeeds, this will represent a general balance shift, in addition to increasing family’s income, raising the level of citizens’ participation in the market and introducing new social values regarding the perception of women’s status and rights. It is no longer logical for millions of girls to study and graduate from the best universities and then not be able to find work and participate in public life, whether we are talking about employment, society, politics or the economy.”
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