The controversy surrounding women’s issues in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has taken on tremendous dimensions and sizes. It has preoccupied the public and stimulated debate within societies for many years, with public opinion ultimately becoming divided over the matter in a manner closer to hysteria than natural discourse. Indeed, when religion becomes involved in a social affair, the situation truly moves to another level.
Without exception, the Islamic world has competently dealt with several women’s issues ranging from education, the right to drive a car, employment, the assumption of senior government posts such as that of a minister or director, and the provision of women’s seats in municipal councils and parliament, whether through nomination or direct election. Today, Saudi Arabia is taking a tremendous step towards social equality for women, and towards recognising the distinction between religious stature and social customs. King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz has passed a historic decree allowing for women to be appointed to the Saudi Shura Council, reserving 20 percent of seats for them, hence allowing women to play a major part in the country’s future decision-making process.
Thanks to such a step, the issue of women in Saudi Arabia has moved on from the stage of "theorization" to a practical realization of women's value in society. The Koran and the Prophet (peace be upon him) both glorified women, and throughout the great course of Islam women have performed various roles in jurisprudence, politics, conflict and medicine. Anyone who would deny this must be suffering from extensive social and historical memory loss. Contrary what some radical affiliates of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice may believe; affiliates who confronted the Saudi Minister of Labor and insulted him using harsh language and religious condemnation, Saudi Arabia is in fact acting to promote the status of women in accordance with Islamic teachings. For example, from a Sharia’a viewpoint, there is no objection in the Koran to women’s employment, where they are often depicted as street vendors, and the Prophet (pbuh) also had no issue with this. These issues, along with others, have already been decided and settled in other states and regions of the Islamic world.
This important decree issued by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques will go down in the history of Saudi Arabia’s political heritage. It is a pivotal measure that will provide a boost to the country’s political and social state of affairs, in a manner similar to previous decrees that ensured women’s right to education, the launch of local governance systems, as well as the establishment of the Shura Council itself.
In Saudi Arabia, during the era of King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, women's rights have been handled in an unprecedentedly clear and fair manner. Women have been awarded considerable room in the domains of education, scholarships and recruitment; the latter through a series of systems, laws and regulations that have enabled women to work safely and with security. However, this situation has also been necessitated by the economic situation of some families, for whom job opportunities are scarce. In some cases we now find that the woman is the primary breadwinner in the household, a phenomenon that is becoming less and less rare.
The role of women in the Shura Council today is extremely significant because the results of this "experiment" will be decisive. The experiment must be a sustainable success, as was the case with women's entry into some Saudi chambers of commerce. Therefore, it is reassuring that the 30 female figures nominated for the Shura Council are successful, renowned and experts in their fields. This means that a considerable effort has been exerted to select only the best candidates who will be unanimously appreciated by society. I firmly believe that this step will be a precursor towards the appointment of the first Saudi female minister, and towards the issuance of a decree allowing women to drive cars, because failing to do so now is unjustifiable and illogical.
Saudi Arabia and its king both deserve to be congratulated for this significant and historic decree. The decision will not only be beneficial to the Shura Council and its appointed members, but it will also allow Saudi Arabia’s young generation to cherish hope and have the courage to dream.
Congratulations to Saudi Arabia and to the Saudi people for taking such a historic step. Many will now be keeping an eye on the council's upcoming sessions in the hope that they will see new history being written, not only with regards to women, but also with regards to a wider political course that befits Saudi ambitions.
By Hussein Shabokshi