King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia has appointed 30 women to the previously all-male consultative Shura Council, marking a historic first as he pushes reforms in the kingdom.
The decrees, published by the official SPA news agency on Friday, give women a 20 percent quota in the Shura Council, a body appointed by the king to advise him on policy and legislation.
One decree amended an article in the council’s statute to give women representation on the body, while the other named the 150 members, among them 30 women.
King Abdullah took the decisions following consultations with religious leaders in the kingdom, where women are subjected to many restrictions and are not allowed to mix with men, according to the decrees published by the SPA.
They stipulate that men and women will be segregated inside the council, with a special area designated for females who will enter through a separate door so as not to mix with their male colleagues.
King Abdullah had been carefully treading towards change, introducing municipal elections for the first time in Saudi Arabia in 2005.
In September 2011, he granted women the right to cast ballots and run as candidates in the next local vote, set for 2015. In announcing those changes, he also said he was planning to name women to the Shura Council.
‘Issues still hanging’
Women’s rights activists have long fought for the right to vote in the oil-rich Gulf kingdom, which applies a strict version of Sunni Islam and bans females from driving or travelling without the consent of a male guardian.
“The [latest] decision is good but women issues are still hanging,” said Wajeha al-Hawidar, a prominent Saudi female activist.
“For normal women, there are so many laws and measures that must be suspended or amended for women to be dealt with as grown-ups and adults, without a mandate from guardians.”
But she said that having female members of the council could help to change the image of women in society.
“Men can finally respect women when they see them playing a (traditional) male role,” she said.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organisation of parliaments, commended the move as “another step forward” for women’s political rights in Saudi Arabia.
“Until the announcement last September by King Abdullah to give women the right to vote, stand for election in municipal elections and be appointed to the Shura Council, the Gulf country remained the only country in the world where women remained excluded from the political process,” the IPU said in a statement.
Although the council does not have law-making powers, the IPU said the 20 percent quota given to women in the Shura Council makes Saudi Arabia the fourth highest in the Arab region in terms of women’s political participation in parliament.