I believe the decision of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, to appoint a number of women to the Shura Council will positively affect the ability of women to compete in other fields, such as the planned elections to municipal counils. The council members, decision-makers and members of the community have undertaken efforts to make this a success and pave the way for the participation of women in other fields.
Personally, I think that the move to grant 30 women full membership of the Shura Council has been the most influential step towards improving the position of women in Saudi Arabia so far. This is not to understate previous achievements, but to highlight the political and social impact of this act.
The media closely follows the deliberations of the Shura Council, keeping the story at the top of the agenda and making women more visible than ever on the national stage. There is no doubt that the entrance of women to the Shura Council will have a positive impact on women’s chances of success in other areas, including the municipal elections, for several reasons.
Women entered the Shura Council after an amendment in January 2013 set a quota that 20 percent of its members must be women. This in and of itself confirms the state’s resolve to empower women by putting them in leadership roles. It is also an indication of the seriousness of the state’s interest in expanding the role of women through ensuring a minimum level of representation in the Council. Beyond that, we also see rising levels of women’s participation in parliaments around the world.
The Shura Council amendment represents a powerful expression of the resolve of the state and confirms that it is on the side of women. It proves that the state relies on women to contribute to national development alongside men. In fact, the position of women nationally has changed following the Shura Council’s move. Women have become involved with the issues reviewed by the Council from security to economics and politics to foreign affairs. Women are no longer confined to traditional areas, such as education, health, and social and cultural affairs.
The amendment also provided the opportunity for women to participate in all of the Council’s committees without restriction. Such a move serves as a foundation for women’s broader participation in politics in general and opens prospects for then to compete in all fields of development, far from areas where women are traditionally expected to serve.
All of this signifies a growing recognition of Saudi women’s ability to compete in various areas in the public and private sectors. People are becoming more aware that women are increasingly well-educated, ambitious and have a crucial role to play in civil society.
Perhaps we realized the seriousness of the state’s determination to empower women after the call from the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques for an end to “marginalization.” In his famous speech, he announced under the dome of the Council that there would be “no more marginalization after today.”
Additionally, the performance of the women on the Shura Council confirms their skill, strengthens society’s confidence in their capabilities, and undermines negative stereotypes put forward by some about women in leadership positions. While it is still too early for women to have gained significant parliamentary experience, the early signs are very positive. Women have entered the Shura Council fully aware of the weight of national responsibility and security, the trust of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and the aspirations of the men and women of their era.
The initial success of the women in the Council has tipped the scales in favor of their supporters, despite the roar of dissenting voices at the start of their appointment. There is no doubt this paves the way for new experiences, opens prospects for Saudi women to compete in other fields, and increases the likelihood of their success in new ventures.
We have also learned from our experience as women in the Shura Council, which we can use to build upon in other fields. For example, we have gained experience in forming committees and identifying priority actions, rallying support and persuading and influencing colleagues, studying cases and gathering information, dealing with differing opinions, communicating with local and international media, and representing the Kingdom in international councils and parliaments. All of these are valuable skills.
I believe that every development in national leadership needs to build upon previous experiences. This is especially true when working with issues on the national agenda. Thus, the decision to grant women full membership in the Shura Council—and an influential voice in all decisions made under the Council’s dome—is one of the most prominent steps that has empowered women, granting them the authority to not only influence events, but also be fully present on the national stage.
There will also be wider social benefits from the inclusion of women on the Shura Council, given its atmosphere of professionalism. The structure of the Shura Council, of course, grants its male and female members equality in terms of rights and duties and does not distinguish between the two. This has created a professional environment based on equality and harmony between men and women in the sphere of national politics. This enables its members, both men and women, to carry out their work efficiently, beyond traditional ideas about separate roles for women and men.
In my view, the most prominent change that is happening as a result of women’s entry to the Shura Council is the growing awareness of women’s role, importance and presence in the public space in the community. Society is beginning to understand that men and women are equally part of the nation. As the leadership of government institutions start to realize the role women play in legislation, supervision and leadership, then the expectation that women will participate in municipal councils will become firmer, backed up by concrete experience thanks to the strenuous efforts of Saudi women. This is not due simply to the presence of women on the Shura Council, but rather the culmination of a continued, tireless striving towards equality.
The counterpoint to this article can be read here