Saudi Arabia has seen many gradual changes over the last eight years. When the first-ever elections were held in Saudi Arabia in 2005 to elect municipal representatives, women were barred from participating. Reasons for this ranged from lack of time to prepare for women-only polling places, to the more conservative view that women’s voices would be heard through their husband or father’s votes. In 2011, however, King Abdullah announced that women would be able to run for office and vote in the next municipal elections, scheduled for 2015.
That same year, King Abdullah also announced that he would appoint women to the Shura Council. An unelected consultative body with no legislative power, the Shura Council advises the King on a host of issues. In 2011, King Abdullah promised 15 seats out of the 150 to women. However, on January 12, 2013 he instead appointed 30 women, bringing a now official quota to 20%.
This is a huge step forward for women in the Kingdom. Previously, the highest ranking woman in the Saudi government was a deputy minister for girl’s education. Over the past two years, with the announcement of women’s suffrage and their appointment to the Shura Council, women have seen marked gains in their access to power at some of the highest levels. However, this access does come at a price.
As noted by several commentators, including activist Manal al-Sharif and the Council on Foreign Relation’s Isobel Coleman, these concessions do not address the fact that the Council is still not an elected body that represents the will of the people. Additionally, the Council will be segregated, requiring women to enter and exit the Shura Council chambers through women’s-only entrances.
Left unaddressed are the lingering issues of women’s ability to drive, and the guardian system, which still limits women’s autonomy. In addition, there are calls to further open economic opportunities for women and lifting limitations on women’s ability to pursue different fields of work and study.
While there is still much progress to be made, many women see the announcement as a huge gain. As Mona Al-Munajjed, a sociologist, explained, “It is a very positive and constructive step in which King Abdullah is working on boosting and activating women’s role in the social and political life of the Kingdom.”
It remains to be seen what the impact of women’s appointment to the Shura council will be. There are still many who see women in the Shura council as a threat to traditional values, while a more progressive minority is seeking to have their voices heard. Recent protests from women speaking out against the detention of their family members has also led to many arrests and a sense of unease with women’s new, more public role.
For Vital Voices’ insights on how women have had an impact on their communities throughout the MENA region, check out case studies of women’s advocacy work in six countries – The Journey through Transition: 6 Stories of Women-led Change in the Middle East and North Africa. Available in English, Arabic, and French.
Christine German is Vital Voices senior regional program manager, Middle East and North Africa.