Change is afoot in Saudi Arabia where King Abdullah has granted women seats on an important advisory council. King Abdullah came to the throne in 2005 at age 81 after the death of his brother, King Fahd. Moderate in his views toward women, Abdullah has worked to strike a balance that does not cause undue upset among conservatives.
For the first time women will occupy 30 seats on the Shura Council. Previously, women served only as advisors rather than full members of the Council. Also known as the Consultative Council, the Shura Council was created in 1993. Terms are for four years. There are 150 seats in total and members are charged with discussing laws and providing advice to the King. Prior to Abdullah’s decree that women occupy 20% of the council seats Saudi Arabia ranked 139 out of 140 on the list of women in world parliaments and congress. By way of comparison, U.S. women hold 18% of congressional seats.
Although the body does not have legislative powers, the move is seen as a small –albeit slow- step in the right direction. Many more steps will be required before the status of women approaches parity with other countries. According to the SIGI (Social Institutions & Gender Index) Saudi Arabia ranks near the bottom at 135 out of 146 rated countries on the 2011 gender equality index. Women cannot drive legally, nor can they travel abroad or marry without permission from a male guardian. Additional limits restrict women’s choices and ability to move freely outside of the home. For example, as in the general population women on the Shura Council will be required to avoid direct contact with men.
One of the first women appointed to the Council is Dr. Thuraya Al Arrayed who is described as a well known Arab thought leader. Dr. Al Arrayed holds a PhD from the University of North Carolina, and is a catalyst for change in Saudi Arabia. She is a widely respected member and advisor to a number of NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) and speaks and writes regularly on current issues. Dr. Al Arrayed has also served as Senior Executive of Aramco (Arabian American Oil Company).
Other appointees include Hamda Khalaf Muqbil Al-Enizi, a professor at King Faisal University and Hayat Sindi, a biotechnologist who was included on the 2012 Newsweek list of 150 women who shake the world.
It is interesting to note that even though the 113th Congress boasts the highest number of women senators ever (20 women were elected) and with 81 serving in the house the United States is not doing so well with gender equity either. The U.S. ranks only 79 in the world for women’s political representation. The work for gender equality continues worldwide.