Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Saudi Women: The March is Irreversible

In September 2011, King Abdullah decreed that women would be appointed to the Shoura Council for the 2013 term, and based on this royal decree, the Shoura Council has begun to prepare itself and the chamber for the arrival of the would be appointed female members if the King’s decree is upheld.

Membership in the Shoura Council is an important step for Saudi women, who have long been marginalized by the male-dominated Saudi system. Women lack a voice in government and in society, as they are often seen as less than full citizens. This is due to severe institutionalized discriminatory restrictions on women, known as the male guardian system. However, women are increasingly and unabashedly standing up for their rights and demanding equality as full citizens, including the right to vote, full employment, and mobility, such as the right to drive.

Despite the measured psychological and social significance of appointing women to the Saudi national Consultative Council, Majlis Al-Shura, a closer look at the powerless council raises the question of whether the inclusion of women in the council will make a difference or will legitimize the regime’s deception by appearing in favor of women’s rights, while in reality enforcing social injustice. The council’s current 150 male members are appointed and paid by the King based on their loyalty to the ruling family, answering only to the King and not to the Saudi people. The would be appointed women members will similarly be appointed and paid by the King based on their loyalty to him and his family; therefore, they will not be representing the interests of the overwhelming majority of Saudi women.

The Shoura Council has no legislative power. The council cannot initiate, pass or enforce laws and while the council advises the King, he is not required to accept any of its suggestions (and he rarely does, if ever). For example, all decisions, including budgets, are initiated and determined before they are sent to the council for review and suggestions. Appointing women to the council is not likely to make one bit of difference in terms of changing the powerless council’s authority or the Saudi system’s continued discriminatory policies and practices against women. However, the fact that women will be appointed to the council is a positive step for women in achieving their usurped legitimate rights.

After being denied their basic rights for decades, small steps, albeit cosmetic, are important for women in Saudi Arabia. No one has any illusion that appointing women to the Shoura Council will result in quick and easy progress for them, but it is a step in the right direction because the more they gain recognition as full citizens, the stronger their demands will be and the less their enemies in society and institutions, especially the “religious” establishment, will be able to stop them from participating in and contributing to the political, social, economic, and educational well-being of Saudi society. 


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