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memri
June 21, 2013 No.
986

Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia: Historic Nomination Of Women To Shura Council – Alongside Harsh Action By Regime Against Women's Rights Activists

By: Y. Admon*

Introduction

On January 11, 2013, for the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia – where women have no right to drive and are still required by law to obtain the escort and approval of a male guardian for almost every step that they take[1] – King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz appointed 30 women to the Shura Council.

While this decision by the king and its subsequent implementation, reviewed in depth in the following report, appear to represent a significant leap forward for women's rights in the kingdom, they must be understood in the context of another event – a brutal move by the Saudi regime that belies this ostensible progress and renders it meaningless. Earlier this month, two prominent Saudi women's rights activists, Wajeha Al-Huweidar and Fawzia Alj-'Uyouni, were sentenced to 10 months in prison for attempting to bring food to a Canadian woman imprisoned in her home with her small children without food by her Saudi husband (see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5338, Saudi Women's Rights Activists Wajeha Al-Huweidar, Fawzia Al-'Uyouni Sentenced To Prison For Trying To Help Canadian Woman Living In Saudi Arabia, June 17, 2013).

Background

The king's decision means that henceforth women can submit their candidacy to the Shura Council, participate as members in council deliberations, and play an active role in council decision making that affects all strata of Saudi society. The new councilwomen also take part in the Shura committees, and three of them have been appointed deputy chairs of these committees.

It should be noted that the Shura Council is not democratically elected but is appointed by the king. The women appointed to the Shura Council are influential figures in Saudi society and worldwide; two are princesses of the royal family.

The decision to incorporate women into the Shura Council has received support from elite circles in Saudi Arabia, including clerics, Shura members, and numerous columnists in the government press. The measure apparently also enjoys the support of Saudi society in general, as indicated by a survey conducted in Saudi Arabia two months following the announcement that women would be appointed. A sample of 200 men and 2,000 women revealed that 73.5% of the women and 69.9% of the men favored women joining the council.[2]

At the same time, some clerics opposed the decision, claiming that it harmed Islam and violated the rules of shari'a, including the prohibition on ikhtilat (men and women mingling).[3] The reaction of the Grand Mufti, Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz Aal Al-Sheikh, was noteworthy and surprising. Although the Council of Senior Clerics, Saudi Arabia's top religious institution, headed by the mufti himself, backed the decision, the mufti did not express support for it. In fact, in one of his sermons he warned that it would bring about gender mixing at the Shura Council. Previously, in an earlier declaration, the mufti had gone so as far as to oppose the king's intention to nominate women to the Shura Council.

King 'Abdallah: 20% Of Shura Council Members Will Be Women

On January 11, 2013, Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz issued a decree amending several articles of the Shura Council law. The changes included a reassembly of the Shura Council for a four-year period beginning February 19, 2013, and the appointment of 30 councilwomen for the first time in the kingdom's history. According to the new law, "the Shura Council will be made up of a chairman and 150 members selected by the king, who possess knowledge, experience and qualifications; women will comprise at least 20% of the members. The members' rights, duties and affairs will be determined by a royal decree." The decree also states that the king consulted a large number of clerics, who ruled that Muslim law permits appointing women to the Shura Council, as long as they obey its rules, such as wearing a hijab, sitting separately from the men, and as long as separate entrances and offices are assigned for them.[4]

Statements By The King At The Swearing-In Ceremony

At the Shura Council swearing-in ceremony, held February 19, 2013, King 'Abdallah wished the new councilwomen luck and told all the Shura Council members: "I am happy to meet you at the opening of the first year of the sixth session of the Shura Council, the first to include women... Know that your role in the Shura Council... is to represent the various sectors of Saudi society... which requires you to contribute and act wisely in dealing with any issue presented to you."[5] At a special reception for the women members, sponsored by the king's wife, Princess Hessa Al-Sha'lan, the princess said that the female members will constitute added value in the Shura Council thanks to their considerable knowledge and abilities.[6]


The new councilwomen being sworn in (image:
Al-Sharq, Saudi Arabia, February 20, 2013)


The women of the Shura Council (image: Akhbaar24.argaam.com)

Who Are The Women In The Shura Council?

All the women appointed to the Shura Council have academic degrees, mainly in medicine and science. Some have won awards for their achievements in those fields and have worked for international institutions. Among them are figures who are influential in Saudi Arabia and worldwide, and who have often voiced their intention to promote the cause of women in the kingdom. Two of them are members of the royal family – Princess Sarrah bint Faisal bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Sa'ud and Princess Moudi bint Khalid bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Sa'ud.[7]

Councilwoman Dr. Thuraya 'Obeid, deputy chair of the Shura Council Human Rights and Petitions Committee, has served in senior roles inside the kingdom and outside it. During this year's Al-Janadriyah national heritage and culture festival, she was selected by King 'Abdallah as Woman of the Year (the first woman so designated in Saudi Arabia), and was also awarded a medal of honor and excellence by the king's son, Prince Mut'ab, minister of the National Guard.[8] Of her selection as Woman of the Year, 'Obeid said that it would promote the pioneering role of the woman in Saudi Arabia, and that it was a sign of recognition of the Saudi woman's efforts in recent years.[9]

Following her appointment to the Shura Council, she said that the incorporation of women into the council is a new experiment that will be examined under a microscope, "especially since the expectations are too great to be realized all at once." She stressed that the women will voice their opinion not just on matters relating to women, but on all topics addressed by the council.[10]


Dr. Thuraya 'Obeid (image: sayidaty.net)


Dr. 'Obeid receiving a medal of honor (image:
Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2013)

Shura Council member Salwa Al-Hazaa, an ophthalmologist and the first Saudi woman to be awarded a professorship by a U.S. university, has won many prizes for her medical research and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2005 as one of the world's most influential Arab women.[11] She told the international Arab magazine Al-Majalla that the decision to appoint 30 women to the Shura Council was brave and would involve Saudi women – whom she noted constitute half of society – in the country's affairs and develop not just the Saudi woman and family, but the country as a whole. She said that the inclusion of women in the Shura Council will prove to Saudi society that women, like men, can take part in decision-making and shoulder responsibility in matters concerning the country. She added that problems relating to family, women's status, and women's unemployment will head the Shura Council's agenda.[12]


Salwa Al-Hazaa (image: majalla.com)

After being sworn in, Shura Council member Dr. Lubna Al-Ansari, a family physician by profession, said that the oath taken in front of King 'Abdallah constituted national recognition of the role of Saudi women. She said that King 'Abdallah is showing remarkable support for women by taking steps to make their voice heard and to involve them in all areas of life. She added that the women's presence in the Shura Council alongside the men signifies that they have an equal role and enjoy equal opportunities, and added that she intends to focus on the areas of health care and human rights.[13]


Lubna Al-Ansari (image: alwatan.com.sa)

According to Councilwoman Dr. Fadwa bint Salama Abu Marifa, a mathematician, time will prove King 'Abdallah's decision to appoint women to the Shura Council correct; she added that he would not have taken this step had ne not believed in the abilities of the Saudi woman. She revealed that underage marriage is the first issue that she intends to raise in the council.[14]

Shura Council Members: The Decision Is In Line With Social Reforms

Shura Council members praised the decision to appoint women to the council and said that it was in line with the political, social and economic development in Saudi Arabia. Shura member Dr. Hamed Al-Sharari said that the incorporation of women demonstrates King 'Abdallah's faith in their abilities and in their academic, mental, cultural, and managerial maturity. According to him, the decision sends a message that Islam is not an obstacle to the participation of Muslim women in all walks of life.

Shura member Dr. 'Abdallah Al-Zafiri said that the decision reflects the position of the Saudi leadership, which stresses the woman's right to be an active participant in the Shura Council and assist in decision-making. Another member, Dr. 'Abdallah Nassif, remarked that the decision followed comprehensive study and consultation with clerics, adding that the woman is a basic and active component in Saudi society, and therefore must be involved in the development and decision-making processes.[15]

Shura Deputy Speaker: The Councilwomen Will Be Able To Head Shura Committees

The first Shura Council session attended by the women, held on February 24, 2013, dealt, among other issues, with presenting the heads and deputy heads of the Shura Council committees. So far, none of the female Shura members have been appointed to head committees, but three have been appointed deputy heads: Dr. Thuraya 'Obeid to the Human Rights and Petitions committee, Dr. Lubna Al-Ansari to the Health and Environment committee, and Dr. Zainab Abu Taleb to the Committee of Culture and Media Affairs.[16]

Shura Assistant Speaker Dr. Fahad Al-Hamad called for working towards the successful integration of the women in the Shura Council: "The entry of this number of women into the council, based on the decision of our first statesman [i.e., the king], obliges the citizens, the loyal [subjects] and anyone who cares for this homeland to contribute to the success of this experiment, each in his own field." He added that in the future, women might head Shura Council committees, if they submit their candidacy and are elected by the committee members.[17]

Religious Controversy Over The Decision

The decision to appoint women to the Shura Council sparked controversy within the Saudi religious establishment. Some clerics supported it, claiming that it is sanctioned by the shari'a because the Prophet Muhammad would consult with his wives and because Islamic history has seen many women who served as advisors. Conversely, others objected to the decision and called it contrary to Islam.

The Saudi Mufti: The Decision Undermines The Modesty Of Saudi Women And Saudi Society

As mentioned, the supreme religious body in Saudi Arabia, the Council of Senior Clerics, supported the king's decision,[18] and its head, Mufti Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Sheikh, even attended the swearing-in ceremony of the new councilwomen.[19]

Despite this, the Mufti himself apparently opposes the decision. In fact, in September 2011, when the King first announced his intention to appoint women to the Shura Council and to let them vote in the municipal elections, the Mufti objected, calling the idea "another plot by the enemies of the [Muslim] nation."[20] Following the women's appointment, he did not issue a statement supporting it, but rather warned against relaxing the ban on gender mixing and especially against passing laws that contravene the shari'a. In a January 4, 2013 sermon, he said: "Women must be segregated from men in every possible way, because our honorable religion protects them from corrupt phenomena... [The Shura Council] must not pass laws that violate the shari'a, such as [laws allowing] women to wear makeup, uncover their faces or mix with men... Whoever does this [i.e., passes such laws] undermines morals and values. No official may pass laws that contradict Allah's shari'a and contravene moral values..."[21]

According to a report published by Saudi journalist 'Abdallah Al-Modifer in September 2011, two other members of the Senior Clerics Council who opposed the incorporation of women in the Shura Council were Sheikh Salah Al-Fawzan and Sheikh Saleh Al-Luhaidan – both of them known for their conservative positions and for opposing the advancement of Saudi women and even contributing to their oppression. Al-Modifer speculated, however, that their objection stemmed mainly from the fact that the king had not consulted them before making his announcement.[22]

Other Clerics Oppose The Decision

Other clerics, too, saw the decision as violating Islam and claimed that the shari'a bans women from holding public office. Some of these clerics even congregated for several hours in front of the king's office in Riyadh to protest the decision.[23]

Other clerics started a Twitter hashtag criticizing the king's decision and deriding the women Shura Council members.[24] Some of them made offensive remarks against the women council members, such as Sheikh Aal 'Abd Al-Qader, who described them as "despicable" and, according to one report, even called them "whores."[25] Cleric Dr. Salah Al-Shahir, formerly a lecturer at the King Saud Islamic University, wrote on his blog: "Is it conceivable that these unbelieving women should represent our society? I swear by Allah that the answer is no. In fact, they are the dregs of society, and it is inconceivable that the state should grant them this role." [26]

In response to these statements, legal consultant Ahmad Al-Muhaimid announced that slandering the councilwomen on the social networks is an offense punishable by up to a year's imprisonment and a fine of up to 500,000 riyal, under the Anti-Cyber Crime Law.[27]

Some clerics condemned the Mufti and the religious establishment for backing the king's decision, accusing them of hypocrisy and of corrupting Saudi society, or questioning their integrity. One tweet mentioned the mufti's former statement in which he had called the incorporation of women in the Shura Council a "plot" by the enemies of the nation.[28]

Salafi cleric Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Fares tweeted: "Honorable Mufti, how offensive we found the picture of the female Shura Council members marching in front of you, some of them with uncovered [faces] and wearing makeup. Do not Allah's laws [prohibit this]?! Is this what you would like for your daughters?!"[29]

Another tweet, accompanied by the photo below, complained that there was no partition separating the female Shura Council members from the men: "This photo [shows] the councilwomen at their first session, without any partition or screen separating them from the men, and yet all of them were allowed to attend!" [30]

Saudi Sheikhs: The Decision Is Sanctioned By The Shari'a

Conversely, there were many clerics who supported the advent of women in the Shura Council. Sheikh Muhammad Al-Nujaimi, a lecturer at the Islamic University of Al-Madina, said that the decision was timely and was based on consultation with clerics and experts, and that the councilwomen would enrich the council's debates and activity.[31] Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Hamoud, a lecturer at the Shari'a Faculty in the University of Riyadh, said that the decision is in line with the pioneering role that women have played throughout Muslim history in the service of society and the nation. He stressed that women have the right to be consulted and that there is no shari'a law banning them from serving on the Shura Council, especially since this council sometimes discusses matters requiring a woman's perspective. He added that the women's contribution would not be restricted to issues of women's rights, and that women are often more perceptive than men.

Dr. Hassan Al-Hajjaji of the Muslim World League said that the decision was in line with Islam, which regards women as equal to men, and noted that the Prophet Muhammad used to consult with his wives Umm Salama and 'Aisha. Dr. 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Hazmi, an advisor at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, commented that women have an important role in reforming society since they constitute half of society and also because they are the primary caretakers responsible for bringing up the children. The women's entry into the Shura Council, he said, gives them a chance to be active, to influence the decision making and to contribute to the development of all sectors in the country.

Additinally, Sheikh Ahmad bin 'Abdallah Al-Fraih, a senior official at the Umm Al-Qura University, pointed out that the inclusion of women in the Shura Council is positive since women know their affairs better than anyone, but stressed that they should observe the laws of the shari'a.[32]

Are The Women Shura Members Segregated From The Men?

The issue of ikhtilat (gender mixing), where men and women occupy the same space without a physical partition between them, preoccupies Saudi society and is a topic of ongoing religious controversy. Today, this is the main concern of the religious establishment with respect to the presence of women in the Shura Council. A decree by the king specified that they would be given separate seats in the assembly hall as well as a separate entrance, as shown in the photo below.


The women's entrance to the assembly hall (image: Al-Watan, Saudi Arabia, February 25, 2013)

In the period leading up to the women's entry into the Shura Council, the Saudi media claimed that a partition of darkened glass would separate the women's section of the assembly hall from that of the men. Later, on the eve of the first session, it was reported that this session would deal, inter alia, with the issue of the women's seating: whether they would sit in the same hall, separated from the men by a partition, or in a separate hall that would communicate with the main hall via a television screen.

Shura Council member Hanan Al-Ahmadi told the British TV network Sky News Arabia that the king's decree "did not specify a complete separation of the women from the men; on the contrary, it specified that the women would participate in all sessions. I expect that there will be proper mechanisms to enable [the women's] participation, possibly using modern technology."[33]

Eventually, the first session did not deal with this issue and was held with the women sitting in their own section, but without a partition separating them from the men.[34] The Saudi Al-Watan daily reported, citing sources in the Shura Council itself, that the idea of the partition had been discarded, and that the women communicated with the men by means of special clerks that passed notes between them during sessions.[35]

Saudi Press Praises The Decision

Saudi writers and intellectuals responding to the decision said that it was an important first move in strengthening the role of women in Saudi society, and that it would be followed by additional moves. Liberal Saudi journalist Hussein Shobokshi commented that this decision was in line with the king's policy to involve all citizens in the decision-making process and in the country's political and social development. According to him, the new female members will be even more active than the men, especially in matters concerning women, and this will upgrade the status of the Shura Council. Shobokshi added: "The woman's role will be equal to the man's... [and] the woman's voice will enhance and complement the man's voice."[36]

Al-Watan: The Decision Is A Continuation Of The Woman's Role In Early Islam

An editorial in the government Saudi daily Al-Watan offered historical context for the decision, explaining that appointing women to the Shura Council was a continuation of roles they fulfilled in early Islam: "What prevents women from dealing with issues of women and family in the Shura Council? The natural response to anyone who doubts the role of the woman is: [The woman] can undoubtedly discuss these issues, and also examine and discuss all the [other] economic, logistic and social matters on the council's agenda. Moreover, [the woman] is expected to fulfill a crucial role in strengthening the council by adopting forward thinking and more active solutions to society's ills...

"Contrary to the picture painted by patriarchal mentality, the woman, in times of decision... defers to the language of reason and thinks logically and unemotionally... There are many examples of this: The wives of the Prophet Muhammad gave us most of the hadiths and laws, and fulfilled a crucial role in Muslim shar'ia and policy... Women in early Islam were among the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad... and fulfilled roles no less important than those of the men... Nowadays, women are doctors, scholars, religious experts, researchers, managers, presidents of international organizations, intellectuals, and human rights activists. The current engagement of women in our society is a continuation of their [role] in early Islam, and is unrelated to liberalism or secularism..."[37]

Saudi Liberal: The Councilwomen Should Use Their Position For The Benefit Of All Women

Some columnists claimed that appointing only 30 women was not enough. In an article in the London daily Al-Hayat, Saudi liberal that Badariya Al-Bashar praised the decision but claimed that the move had come late and must now be accelerated and expanded: "We must rejoice in this [decision], since including women in one of the country's most important institutions is a recognition of their ability, intelligence, and right to serve their society as citizens. Furthermore, [the move] shows that the woman has made progress in [the field of] politics and not just in the social, educational, economic and medical domains... Those who try to belittle this move are not aware of its magnitude in a society that has been known for its ideological and social objection to the promotion of women...

"On such an occasion, joy comes before criticism and we must say 'congratulations.' Congratulations to all the women Shura Council members who have received the king's trust. They received it thanks to the role they have fulfilled and their developing awareness, which urges them to achieve this right as well as many other rights... The women who submitted their candidacy for the Shura Council are not housewives. They were hand-picked from universities and [other] academic, medical and social institutions. Their biographies teach of their achievements, and some of them have even won international awards... Upon joining this institution, which [engages in] criticism and research and formulates laws, the scope of their participation should match their expertise...

"[However], 30 women in the council, namely 20%, is not a number that meets our expectations. It is a start, which, as usual, was slow in coming, but which will pave the road for women in politics... [But it] is just the beginning, giving women a foothold on their way to achieving the rest of their civil rights... such as the right to serve as a guardian, the right to travel [without a guardian], the right to drive, and an end to discrimination [against them]. We expect to soon see a woman serving as minister of social affairs or education, or in other... government positions.

"Many hopes are pinned on the women in the Shura Council. The first is that they carry out their duties in the best way possible... Furthermore, we expect the new councilwomen to promote [the status of Saudi] women and not be a mere formal presence, affording them honor and profit. The first task I lay on their desk is the approval of a personal status law that will define and defend women's rights... [and defend women] against sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace..."[38]

Saudi Columnist: The Councilwomen Will Represent All Of Society

In an article in the government Saudi daily 'Okaz, columnist Muhammad Al-Harbi wrote: "This is a historic achievement and a dream that was realized by King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, who fulfilled his promise to his people... The women in the Shura Council do not represent only [the Saudi] women, but society [as a whole] – men, women, children and the elderly – and they are involved in general affairs and all fields...

"The fact that they are women does not mean they will only discuss women's matters. However, they should certainly be especially active with regards to the affairs of women, who need a powerful representation in the council that will [promote their interests:] increase the number of fields they can study and the jobs they can hold; [address the problem of] women's unemployment; [provide] administrative benefits to businesswomen; [address the ban on] women driving… and the many other issues that afflict the Saudi woman... Thirty Saudi women [are being put] to a true test and must prove that all their demands were worth the efforts they invested, and that all the ink... spilled over decades was not spilled in vain..."[39]

The Women In The Shura Council: Acting To Promote Women's Rights

Already in the first months after their appointment, the new councilwomen participated in its sessions and took an active role in its deliberations, with the clear objective of promoting issues related primarily to the status of women in Saudi Arabia – such as women drivers, underage marriage, the role of the religious police and its relationship with the public, female Saudi prisoners, etc. The Saudi press frequently reports on Shura Council sessions in which women participate, and publishes many photos of the female members.

On May 6, 2013, the eighth anniversary of 'Abdallah's reign, the Saudi press published articles on his achievements, focusing mainly on his promotion of women's status, and especially on his recent decision to appoint women to the Shura Council and allow them to vote for the municipal councils in the next round of elections. Saudi Princess Moudi bint Nasser bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz commented that women could realize all their rights only by raising their problems for discussion in the Shura Council. Councilwoman Dr. Salwa Al-Hazaa said that this year is the "golden year" of the Saudi woman, and that the decision to appoint women to the Shura Council reinforced the woman's role, as she would henceforth be capable of making decisions just like a man. According to her, this decision represented a first step towards a woman joining the government.[40]

A few months following the appointment of the women, Shura Council Speaker Dr. 'Abdallah Aal Al-Sheikh said that the king had wagered on women and had won his bet, due to the influence and courage displayed by the female Shura members. In his opinion, the impact and influence of these members have exceeded expectations, thanks to their experience and as reflected by the diversity of topics that they have brought up for deliberation in the council and their expertise in them. 'Al-Sheikh added that councilwomen do not intervene in Shura Council deliberations unnecessarily but only in issues where they can have an impact and be constructive, and that they have managed to create "a glowing image of the Saudi woman." [41]


Female members at Shura Council session (image:
Al-Madina, Saudi Arabia, May 20, 2013)

Shura Council member Dr. Thuraya 'Obeid said that the councilwomen diligently address the genuine problems of women within the Shura Council committees in which they are members. She added that just like the councilmen, they should discuss all issues that are raised before the Shura Council, though they play a particularly important role in raising issues pertaining to women. [42]

First Concrete Achievement Of Shura Councilwomen: Uniform Law To Obtain Real Estate Loans

The Shura Council's June 18 session saw the first concrete achievement of the women members, when the council approved a law proposal permitting women to apply for real estate loans, a right heretofore reserved for men. The law, initiated by three councilwomen – Dr. Wafa Taibah, member of the Human Rights and Petitions Committee; Dr. Lubna Al-Ansari and Dr. Muna Al-Mushayt – permits women to apply for loans regardless of their marital or social status, including widows, orphans or divorcees.

The proposal was carried by 76 of the Shura members, versus 29 who voted against it. Councilwomen Al-Mushayt commented that she and her colleagues have a duty to obtain justice and rights for women, especially since women are now enjoying a golden age granted to them by the king. She stated further that this victory gives women hope and encourages them to examine additional vital issues pertaining to women. Councilwoman Al-Ansari said that this is a first victory by the female council members on behalf of their fellow women, and that they have managed to make their voice heard in the Shura by uniting their efforts.[43]

Promoting Women's Right to Drive

Some councilwomen declared in the media that they would address issues related to women that would also assist social development. They claimed that one of the most burning issues is the need to permit women to drive – an issue that for some years has been the object of a public and religious debate in the kingdom and has not yet been resolved.[44]

Shura Council member Dr. Thuraya 'Obeid stated in an interview to the government Saudi daily 'Okaz following her appointment that many proposals on this issue have been submitted to the Council Speaker and have been referred to the relevant governmental bodies, but the bottleneck is created by these executive bodies. She said that the issue of women's driving is a social one, governed by tradition rather than religion: "In [Saudi Arabia's] rural and desert areas, women drive cars and this does not detract from their status, self-dignity or the respect that they enjoy in society. Driving is a life skill that a woman needs in order to manage her life and her family. We are the only country in the world that prohibits a woman from driving, not because our religion prohibits it but because tradition dictates that we do so. It is possible to permit [women to drive] under clearly-stated conditions, as the countries neighboring us have done, and to let every family [decide on the matter] as long as the woman's guardian approves."[45]

On March 19, 2013 the Shura Council Human Rights and Petitions Committee, chaired by Councilwoman 'Obeid, submitted a petition signed by 3,000 Saudi citizens demanding a discussion of the driving issue. However, according to reports in the Saudi media, the issue has not been debated in the Shura Council since the petition was submitted.[46]

In the same context, councilwoman Dr. Thuraya Al-'Arrayed, who is also a columnist in the government Saudi daily Al-Jazirah, said: "When I say that the topic [of driving] is very important, I am speaking of myself as a supporter of the issue." She added that the option of deliberating the issue before the Shura Council exists, and the Shura Council's door is always open for presenting petitions. Councilwoman Dr. Lubna Al-Ansari said that both genders have freedom of choice and therefore one should allow a woman to decide if she supports the issue [of women driving] or opposes it. Shura Council member Dr. Latifa Al-Sha'lan said that driving is one of the basic rights that has been denied to Saudi women due to customs and traditions, and Shura member Dr. Salwa Al-Hazaa said that the female Shura members would raise the issue for discussion at the council and would speak in "one voice" on this issue.[47] When, at a March 25, 2013 Shura Council session, criticism was leveled at the performance of the Saudi Ministry of Transportation, Councilwoman Dr. Hayat Sindi said that, before permitting women to drive, an independent transportation and safety administration should be established and a woman placed at its head. [48]


Shura Council Member Dr. Hayat Sindi (image: alarabiya.net)

It Is Necessary To Address The Underemployment Of Women

The female Shura members are also working to improve the employment condition of women in Saudi Arabia, and this by promoting "Saudization" – a process of reducing foreign labor and creating more job opportunities for Saudis, including women. The employment of foreign workers is a nettlesome problem in Saudi society due to the resulting high unemployment rate amongst Saudis. Councilwoman Dr. Amal Al-Shaman said that many women who have undergone professional technological training are unemployed, and called for an expansion of the computer training programs.[49]

Likewise, as part of the efforts to address the high unemployment rate amongst Saudi women, Shura Council member Dr. Salwa Al-Hazaa said that she would work to establish four ophthalmic medicine centers in the country. She too referred to the problems deriving from the employment of foreign workers, and said that the establishment of the centers would solve some of these problems. [50]

Councilwoman Dr. Al-Jawharah Bu-Besht, who is a member of the Shura Council's Human Resources Committee, criticized the plan for advancing the employment of women in the civil service and the delay in its implementation. She described it as a weak plan that does not properly address the need to provide jobs for women, especially considering that women are often very successful at their jobs, as evident from their appointment to the Shura Council and the role they are playing in advancing the status of women. She added that the delay in appointing women to the civil service is unjustified and called to examine the issue in depth.[51]

We Will Work To Improve The Woman's Status

It would appear that in their diverse fields of involvement, the councilwomen are working to improve the status of women. Shura member Dr. Haya Al-Mani, a journalist by profession, said that she would raise issues of the civil rights of women for deliberation in the Shura Council. She added that the Saudi woman has to emerge from a condition in which she is deprived of rights and become an active part of society. Listing issues that require legislative efforts, she mentioned the plight of women who remain without any rights following their divorce; girls whose fathers marry them off without their knowledge; and the problematic nature of the laws against sexual harassment and violence, which are nebulous, in her opinion. Al-Mani added that she wants the Saudi woman to enjoy civil rights and obligations as defined by Islam rather than social custom.[52]

At the March 3, 2013 session, Shura Council member Dr. Amal Shaman stated that women should be appointed to the staff conducting visits to women's prisons ascertain the condition of the prisoners there and whether their problems are being properly addressed. Shura Council member Dr. Hanan Al-Ahmadi said that an issue that must be handled is that of female prisoners who complete their sentence and whose guardian refuses to take them back. In her opinion, leaving these women in prison is an act of deprivation and discrimination against Saudi women.[53]

Likewise, at the March 31, 2013 Shura Council session, member Dr. Fatima Al-Qarni criticized the absence of women in the religious police and called for their employment as field officers, to handle cases that require a female presence.[54]

 

*Y. Admon is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

Endnotes:

[1] In Saudi Arabia a woman is bound to a mahram: a husband, father, grandfather, brother or son who serves as her guardian. The woman requires her guardian's approval and escort for almost any decision or move. For example a Saudi woman is not permitted to travel abroad unescorted by a guardian.

[2] Al-Quds Al-Arabi, (London), March 17, 2013.

[3] This refers to a situation where men and women occupy the same space without any physical partition between them. Under current arrangements at the Shura Council, female members sit on one side of the hall and male council members on the other, but without any partition between them.

[4] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), January 11, 2013.

[5] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), February 20, 2013.

[6] Akhbaar24.argaam.com, February 26, 2013.

[7] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), January 11, 2013.

[8] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 19, 2013.

[9] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), March 27, 2013; 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), March 28, 2013.

[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 5, 2013.

[11] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), May 17, 2013.

[12] Al-Majalla (London), February 24, 2013.

[13] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), February 21, 2013.

[14] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), April 4, 2013.

[15] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), January 13, 2013.

[16] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), February 24, 2013.

[17] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), February 25, 2013.

[18] Isnewsarabia.com, February 19, 2013.

[19] An7a.com, February 22, 2013.

[20] Alifta.net, September 25, 2011.

[21] Mufti.af.org.so, January 4, 2013.

[22] Ararnews.net, November 13, 2011.

[23] France24.com, January 16, 2013.

[24] Twitter.com/aledaat, February 21, 2013.

[25] Anbacom.com, February 25, 2013.

[26] Anbacom.com, February 25, 2013.

[27] Sabaq (Saudi Arabia), February 23, 2013. For the full text of the law, see: citc.gov.sa, March 26, 2007.

[28] Twitter.com/abdulrzzaq_B, February 21, 2013.

[29] Twitter.com/ibrahim_alfares, February 20, 2013.

[30] Twitter.com/topsaudinews. February 25, 2013.

[31] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), January 27, 2013.

[32] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), January 30, 2013.

[33] Skynewsarabia.com, January 11, 2013.

[34] Al-Watan, Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia); Al-Watan (Kuwait), February 24, 2013.

[35] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), February 24, 2013.

[36] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), January 12, 2013.

[37] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), February 26, 2013.

[38] Al-Hayat (London), January 12, 2013.

[39] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), February 21, 2013.

[40] Sabaq (Saudi Arabia), May 6, 2013.

[41] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 1, 2013.

[42] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), April 4, 2013.

[43] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 19, 2013.

[44] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 402, "The Public Debate in Saudi Arabia on Women Driving,"

November 13, 2007.

[45] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), April 4, 2013.

[46] Anaween.com, March 20, 2013.

[47] Al-Sharq, (Saudi Arabia), January 13, 2013; Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), February 20, 2013.

[48] Alarabiya.net, March 26, 2013.

[49] Al-Watan, (Saudi Arabia), May 21, 2013.

[50] Al-Sharq, (Saudi Arabia), May 17, 2013.

[51] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 13, 2013. It should be mentioned that the Saudi National Society for Human Rights has demanded on several occasions that more women be employed in the civil service, in special bureaus that will be opened for them in Saudi cities, but this demand has not been met. According to reports, the ministries of finance and of civil services are considering the option of employing more women. Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), June 13, 2013.

[52] Al-Watan, (Saudi Arabia), February 10, 2013.

[53] Kul Al-Watan, (Saudi Arabia), March 5, 2013.

[54] Al-Madina, (Saudi Arabia), April 1, 2013.