Empowerment of Women in Saudi Arabia:
Inclusion of 30 Women in Shoura Council
Dr. Mozammel Haque
Women not only constitute half of Saudi society but they are also the driving force behind the Kingdom’s future development as a 21st-century society. The royal decree issued by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah to appoint 30 highly educated Saudi women to the Shoura Council (consultative assembly) and to ensure women make up at least 20 percent of the Council in the future is a key turning point in the history of the Kingdom. The historic decision by King Abdullah to appoint women, for the first time, to the Shoura Council is a major initiative to reform the existing political system.
The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques on Friday, the 11th of January 2013, named 30 women members to the 150-member Shoura Council. According to a royal decree, women will form 20 percent of Shoura Council members. Seven of the 30 appointees have worked previously with the council as consultants. King Abdullah appoints a team of 150 members from various professions for a term of four years. Incumbent President Abdullah Al-Asheikh has been reappointed.
I am going to look into this subject from three angles: Islamic perspective, educational perspective and societal perspectives. After that, I am also going to look, briefly, into the background of the Shoura Council, its activities and profile of the newly appointed women members.
From the Islamic perspective, the inclusion of women as Shoura Council members is in accordance with Shari’ah law, which is the foundation for Saudi Arabia laid down by the late King Abdulaziz. All the activities of the Shoura Council are always carried out within the framework of Islam. Even on the inclusion of women in the Consultative Body, King Abdullah took decisions after consultations with the religious leaders.
In Islam, there is no difference between man and woman in matters of lives. But, of course, women have their role to raise the family and to regenerate children for Islam. They have very noble cause to do that. Besides that when we talk about their role in the political arena, women can be as useful as men and the advice they had given at the time of Prophet (peace be upon him) is very well known. Women, in Islam, are entitled to the same freedom of expression as men. Women participated in serious discussions with the Prophet (peace be upon him) and other Muslim leaders. Islam also granted women the right to participate in political affairs and to hold government positions.
Muslim women have been giving their opinions on various issues from the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the Ummah benefited from those opinions. Justice Muhammad Al-Eissa cited the consultation given to the Prophet by Um Salamah (may Allah be pleased with her) during the Hudaibiya peace treaty. Dr Naseef, the former Secretary General of the Muslim World League, told me, “It is very well known that in Hudaibiyya the Prophet (peace be upon him) asked the people to put on their Ihram and shave their heads. They refused and then his wife Um Salamah told him give them the example and they will immediately follow. So that was as had happened. There are lots of examples; there are thousands of examples. There was also an example of a woman who corrected the Umar ibn Khattab on the Mimber. So he said, yes, our woman is right and Umar is wrong. Similarly there are many many examples recorded in history. Even the wife of Harun ar-Rashid during the Abbasids period.”
Dr. Mona S. Al-Munajjed, a sociologist, author and adviser on social and gender issues, mentioned, "Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, participated in political events after the death of the Prophet and became a political leader. And there are several examples in Islamic history of prominent women who became political leaders such as Arwa bint Ahmad Al Sulaihiyyah, Queen of Yemen, Safwat Al-Mulk, Queen of Damascus, Safiya Khatoun, Queen of Aleppo, and Shajarat Al Durr, Queen of Egypt."
So Islamically speaking, there are lots of examples in the history when Muslim women gave their opinions and advice which were very useful to the community and the country. “The participation of women in the Shoura would give them an opportunity to present their opinions and make proposals and demands on various matters. This paves the way for their voices being heard,” the Justice Minister said, adding that society has the right to benefit from their knowledge and expertise.
Not only that, all along history, religion gives them, the women, the freedom and power to speak, take part and also to participate, but some societies neglected and thrown away the womanfolk from public arena; people have stopped the contributions of women. This is by tradition but not by religion. We have to bring them back. That is not the excuse. Islam is the reference and not tradition of the people, said Dr. Naseef.
King Abdullah took the decision after consultations with religious leaders in the Kingdom. It was stipulated that men and women will be segregated inside the council. A special area will be designated for the women, and they will enter through a separate door so that they do not to mix with their male colleagues. Sheikh Abdullah Muhammad Ibrahim Al-Asheikh, President of the Shoura Council, appointed a special committee to implement the directive of the king for the enrollment of women as members of the consultative body. Speaking about the new committee for women's affairs, Dr. Al-Asheikh said the body will make all the necessary arrangements for the women. "All arrangements to accommodate the women members will be made by the committee to receive women members at the sixth session of the council." Administrative staff to assist women members will be appointed before they arrive."The enrollment of women as members of the council will be a qualitative shift in the functioning of the council," Dr. Al-Asheikh said.
He pointed out that all the activities of the council are always carried out within the framework of Islam. "Saudi women have excelled in education, health, economic, administrative and social fields in society," Dr. Al-Asheikh said. He said the council would follow the guidelines laid down by the king to work for national unity, the nation's progress and regional security and peace. Justice Minister Muhammad Al-Eissa said the participation of women would enrich the discussions at the consultative council. “It is a supplementary addition to the Shoura with people having different experiences, expertise and backgrounds,” he said.
From the educational perspective, it is noteworthy to mention that the woman members of the country have achieved tremendous progress in education. It is due to the policy and reform undertaken by King Abdullah. During the reign of King Abdullah, a number of important and noteworthy reform steps were taken in Saudi Arabia. In the era of King Abdullah, the largest reform of the judicial system has been carried out in terms of creating specialised courts in various fields. Also, during the reign of King Abdullah, "the Allegiance Council" has been set up. In the reign of King Abdullah, women entered in the Shoura Council for the first time in the history of the country with full membership rights.
King Abdullah started with the system of education, and soon we had universities, colleges of higher education and centers of excellence springing up across the Kingdom. He and his advisers and his government ministers invested heavily in creating and forming a consensus on key issues. Different points of view were taken into consideration, there was a healthy debate among all segments of society, and so we heard in the media the pros and cons of all that was taking place in the Kingdom.
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah launched eight new educational and welfare projects worth more than SR14 billion at King Saud University (KSU), including a 7.5-billion-riyal campus for women, a SR1.8-billion medical city and a SR1.2-billion housing project. The King Abdullah Project for the Development of Public Education has allocated SR4.2 billion to improve the educational environment and SR3.58 billion for extra-curricular activities. The training and development of teachers is another thrust of the project and for this purpose SR2.94 billion has been set aside. A curriculum development program will receive SR980 million.
Samar Fatany observed, “Investing in education for women has been a priority in educational reform. Women today represent almost 60 percent of university graduates. Vocational institutes for women have been established and private colleges and universities for women have been set up in major cities in the Kingdom facilitating the integration of more qualified women into the workforce. Princess Noura University, the first women’s university in Saudi Arabia, has been expanded and modernized to accommodate 40,000 students and 12,000 employees. It has 15 colleges and a large number of departments.
Over SR200 billion has been allocated for education in this year's budget. “At the moment nearly 90 percent of the students are receiving an education in Saudi Arabia’s 25,000 public schools.” Saudi Arabia has 14.2% of women in national workforce in the educational fields.
The Ministry of Education plans to provide women 7,200 administrative jobs in Girls’ Education at the ministry headquarters and 41 education departments across the country, a ministry source said. Nearly 70 percent of administrative jobs in Girls’ Education are already held by women. The Cabinet also approved measures to increase jobs for women. In the recent Cabinet reshuffle, Norah Al-Faiz was appointed as deputy minister for Girls’ Education. She is the first woman in Saudi Arabia to hold a ministerial post.
Female council members represent not only half of society but more than that, because as mothers they influence and nurture the future generation of our country.
King Abdullah’s decree on the participation of women in the council’s decision-making process was a huge step toward female empowerment. “Since women constitute half of the Saudi population, it is unreasonable for this vital organ of the population to be denied the opportunity to participate within the limits of the Islamic Shariah in building our nation,” he concluded. Another member of the Shoura council, Sadaqa Fadil, stressed
The remarkable progress has been achieved by Saudi women. Previously women had no say in this vital council that takes important decisions affecting society. Earlier, they had a very limited role as primary schoolteachers and nurses in hospitals. Now we find them everywhere taking up different positions. We have seen Saudi women in many fields, especially in education, medicine and economics.
King Abdullah first announced that he was planning to name women to the Shoura Council in 2011. That has been achieved. We have got a woman deputy education minister. Many women now work at chambers of commerce and industry in different parts of the country. The appointment of 30 women on the Shoura is another big leap. In the reign of King Abdullah, women entered in Shoura Council for the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia with full membership rights. In the near future, they may take 50 percent of Shoura seats and take up different ministerial positions. It is hoped all Shoura members would play an active role in boosting the Kingdom’s development by taking judicious decisions. Now women can say what they want and what they do not want.
History of Shoura Council
The King made two amendments to the royal decree governing the Shoura Council. It works as the formal advisory body of Saudi Arabia. This is the august body which provides advice to the King, drafts laws and debates major issues. Reviewing the four-year period, Al-Mohanna, who has written a 2,119-page book entitled, “The Saudi Majlis Ash-Shoura: Its National and International Roles,” said the council has taken up several regional and global social, economic and political matters relevant to the Kingdom. The body acts as a consultative council and has debated several important laws and regulations and annual reports of government and nongovernmental bodies.
The following functions performed by the members of the Shoura Council. “They will work in tandem to interpret laws, as well as to examine annual reports referred to the Council by state ministries and agencies. The Shoura advises the King on policies the King submits to it, along with international treaties and economic plans. The Council is authorized to review the country’s annual budget and call in ministers for questioning and it plays an important role as a policy debate forum. It can request that government officials participate in key meetings and it can ask for access to government documents,” mentioned in Saudi Gazette."
History of women in Shoura
Women are in the Council not as a cosmetic change but to strengthen this consultative body. They will do so using their experience and the foundations of their education," commented Saudi Gazette editorially. The inclusion of highly qualified Saudi female members in the Shoura Council would enable the council to achieve greater progress. The council now comprised highly educated and specialized male and female counterparts, representing a wide spectrum of fields.
Dr. Mona S. AlMunajjed wrote in Arab News, "More than eight years ago, while he was still crown prince, King Abdullah asserted that the status of women would not be undermined or marginalized vis-à-vis their vital role in national development. He declared: “When we talk about the comprehensive development that our country is witnessing, we cannot ignore the role of Saudi women and their participation in this development. The productive role of women has been a definite result of the great investment that the country has dedicated to the field of education for all of its citizens, men and women. As a result, Saudi women have been able to earn the highest educational credentials, which have enabled them to work diligently in different fields. Saudi women have proven their ability to handle responsibilities with great success, whether through their principal duty as mothers, or as professionals. We look forward to women acquiring a major role in a way that will promote the interests of the nation on the basis of the Shariah.”
The Shoura Council has had female advisors before. Since 2006, the Council has had 12 women advisers. In 2011, the King said that women would join the Council, which comprises mostly academics, clerics, businessmen and former civil servants. But this is the first time that women have been appointed as members of the Shoura Council. The 30 women appointed are highly qualified and experienced in various fields and definitely a valuable addition to the Shoura, Maha Akeel said. “I’m confident they will contribute greatly to the discourse and issues,” she said, adding that she was looking forward to more changes in the Shoura bylaws to give it more power.
Female lawmakers in the Arab world
After the inclusion of 30 women members in the Shoura Council, Saudi Arabia has one of the highest percentage of female involvement of all Arab parliaments. Saudi Arabia takes fourth place in the Arab region in terms of women's political participation in Parliament.
Dr. Naseef said, “I was seeing the Arabic newspapers called the Sharq which comes from Dammam. According to this paper, among the membership of women of all the parliaments of the world, Saudis are much more progressive. But in the Gulf countries, of course, it is number one; because there are some countries in the Gulf which don’t have women member in the parliament or have very negligible. This is not for comparison but it is very encouraging for people.”
The figures below are taken from the UN Development Programme:
Country Total Numbers Women Percentage
Jordan: 120 13 0.83%
United Arab Emirates: 60 7 17.50%
Bahrain: 60 11 27.50%
Tunisia: 112 17 13.49%
Algeria: 136 7 4.86%
Comoros: 33 8 3.03%
Lebanon: 128 4 3.13%
Djibouti: 65 9 13.85%
Sudan: 554 87 4.58%
Saudi Arabia: 150 30 20%
Syria: 250 38 2.40
Somalia: 546 37 6.73%
Iraq: 325 82 25.23%
Egypt: 568 30 1.97%
Oman: 84 1 1.19%
State of Palestine: 132 17 12.88%
Qatar: 35 0 0.00% and
Kuwait: 65 0 0.00%)
Profile of Saudi women lawgivers
All the new members of the Shoura Council, men and women, hold high professional postgraduate degrees and have a great deal of experience. The 30 chosen women are university graduates, human rights activists with advanced degrees and two princesses. 27 of the appointed women have a Ph.D. degree.
One of the women members of the Shoura Council is Dr. Khawla Al-Kuraya who is the first Saudi woman to receive the King Abdulaziz Award for Excellence, which was awarded for her contributions in the field of cancer research. She is the first person to identify a gee, FOSMI that prompts the formation of cancer cells in the human body. She is currently director of the Research Centre at King Fahd National Centre for Children's Cancer. King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, Al-Kuraya has just been named to the Shoura Council.
Another newly appointed woman member of the Shoura Council is Thuraya Obeid, a veteran UN administrator who served notably as executive director of the UN Development Program and undersecretary general of the world body.35-years of long experience in the UN has prepared her to support communities and to work with people, especially women and youth.
Nora bint Abdullah Al-Adwan, another newly appointed Shoura member, has been a consultant to the council for the last six years and has participated in several Shoura programs both within the Kingdom and internationally. Her impressive resume also includes chairing two international symposia on women affairs in Amman and in Abu Dhabi recently. Al-Adwan is currently affiliated to the research chair, specializing on women issues at King Saud University (KSU).
Another prominent member is Dr. Hayat Sindi, the first Saudi and Muslim woman in the Middle East Gulf to obtain a PhD in biotechnology. In 2012, she was named one of Newsweek’s “150 Women Who Shake the World.”
Haya bint Abdulaziz Al-Manea is the first Saudi woman doctor in biotechnology, and one of the new members. She said all her colleagues are committed to working hard to help develop the country. Al-Manea is currently at Harvard University in the US to complete a program that she developed to sponsor innovators.
Salwa Al-Hazza is chief scientist at the research center at King Faisal Hospital, and ophthalmology consultant professor at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of King Faisal.
Issues might be raised by
Womem members of the Shoura Council
Recently, a survey was conducted which highlighted the expectation of the public from the women members of the Shoura Council and their role. They think women members will address the following issues: issue of providing housing for people of low income; social security, medical insurance, right of children to retirement pensions of their mothers, housing allowance for women, the right of women to drive, setting up hospitals in villages, establishing a family code, limiting the guardianship rule, granting citizenship to children of mothers married to non-Saudis, upgrading the school curriculum and discussing the right to membership in the Supreme Judicial Council.
The survey was conducted by Sayidaty.net in which 71 percent of respondents were women and 20 percent of men.
King Abdullah’s Reforms
King Abdullah lives up to his reputation as a bold leader. He made decisions that hold a lot of promise for generations to come: his interfaith initiative, his decision to allow women to participate in the upcoming municipal elections, his decision to focus on young Saudis, his decision to spend heavily on the education sector, his decision to institute hundreds and thousands of scholarships in some of the best institutions in the world all these decisions indicated his love for his country and his religion.