Yesterday, the Saudi king issued a decree that outlined the new structure of the Consultative Council, which started this year. In this decree, the Custodian of the Holy Shrines kept his promise to women and now 30 female academics, experts, and scholars have joined the council’s new session. This is news that is worth celebrating because the participation of women in one of the state’s most important institutions is an acknowledgment of the maturity and efficiency of women as well as their right to serve the community of which they are part. It also demonstrates that the role of women is not only educational, social, economic, and medical, but also political. Whoever tries to underestimate such a step is definitely not aware of its magnitude, especially in a society that has always imposed intellectual and social restrictions on the progress of women and in which women had been kept away from the public sphere, a society that forced women into negative stereotypes, questioned her mental faculties, and confined her to the role of the weak subordinate.
On such occasions, happiness takes precedence over criticism and we have to congratulate all the women on whom royal trust was bestowed. This could not have been achieved had it not been for the role of women and the increasing awareness among them and which necessitates that they be granted this right as well as many others that are still being negotiated. Those women who were chosen to become members of the Consultative Council were not brought from their homes, for they come from universities and academic, medical, and social institutions. Their lives are replete with achievements. Some of them received prestigious awards in their fields like Khawla al-Karea, Salwa al-Hazaa, and Hayat Sanadi while others worked in international organizations like Thoraya Obeid and Thoraya al-Areed. When they become part of an institution that demands analyzing, criticizing, and developing existing systems, their contribution is expected to be as remarkable as the experience they are going through. Working in an institution like the Consultative Council also bound to add to their expertise and allow them to acquire new skills.
Hopes for more
Thirty women or 20% of the council might not satisfy our ambitions, but it is a start that carves a place for Saudi women in the political scene and allows them to become part of the list of female parliamentarians worldwide. In 2005, Finland ranked first in women’s representation in the parliament with 47% and in Saudi the percentage was zero.
The Consultative Council is the first step after which women will be able to demand the rest of their civil rights. I had said before that this decision to allow women into the Consultative Council should lift all other bans previously imposed on women and which stripped her of her civil rights like the right to guardianship, travel, driving, and equality. Very soon, we are expecting women to become ministers of social affairs or education or head any of the ministries through which women can start to occupy ministerial posts.
A lot is expected from women in the Consultative Council. First, they are expected to do a very good job and to be up to the responsibility. Second, their presence in the council should not be a bureaucratic one through which they get prestige and money, but they need to serve the interests of women and work towards obtaining their rights and drafting laws that grant them full citizenship, protect them from harassment and discrimination, and grant them equality in work and wages.
Women who joined the Consultative Council are mature, educated, and responsible ones. That is why I hope the venerable council would not distract us with questions like, “Where would women sit?” and “How are they to take part in discussions?” for we better ask “What are the rights they demand?”
*This article was first published in al-Hayat on Jan. 12, 2013. Link: http://alhayat.com/OpinionsDetails/471551
Dr. Badria al-Bishr is a multi-award-winning Saudi columnist and novelist. A PhD graduate from the American University of Beirut, and an alumnus of the U.S. State Department International Visitor program. Her columns put emphasis on women and social issues in Saudi Arabia. She currently lectures at King Saud University's Department of Social Studies.