x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Women demand to be heard

The first six female consultants were marginalised in the Shoura Council but the four newest members are insisting on having a bigger say.

Observers believe four new female consultants will make a difference in the male-dominated legislature.
Observers believe four new female consultants will make a difference in the male-dominated legislature.

JEDDAH // The Saudi parliament has appointed another four women to act as part-time consultants to the Shoura Council, increasing their number to seven. Despite their limited role in advising the council on Sharia-related rulings, observers believe the additions will make a difference in the male-dominated legislature. The council wants to bring the number of part-time female consultants to 12, but they are still awaiting the government's permission.

The four women, all from liberal backgrounds and wealthy families, were appointed two weeks ago. "We have a lot of challenges ahead of us to prove ourselves ? we are still appointed," said Asya Al Ashaikh, one of the newly appointed consultants who also runs a development and management consultancy firm in Jeddah. Besides Mrs al Ashaikh, the council had appointed Maha al Moneef, a doctor; Mai al Issa, who held administrative positions at all-female universities; and Al Jouhra al Angari, a founding member of the National Society for Human Rights.

The appointment of the four consultants marks the second phase of appointing Saudi women to the council. Three of the former six female consultants appointed in the first phase, in 2006, had been dismissed, and now the council is nominating five others so that the total will come to 12, if the government allows the move. Increasing female participation in the council is part of King Abdullah's plan to modernise the government and widen participation to all segments of Saudi society.

In February, the king's reshuffle resulted in the appointment of the first woman to a top ministerial post, and an increase in the number of Shiite members of the Shoura council from two to five. Women have also become more involved in state planning, which is why Mrs al Ashaikh is confident she can play a wider role in the council as a result of her developmental background. Mrs al Ashaikh said she had her first assignment for the council last Tuesday, but was unable to say what it was.

Many believe that increasing the number of women in the council was a reaction to Kuwait's announcement in May that four women won seats in parliamentary elections, a first in the Gulf state's history. However, Mrs al Ashaikh denied her appointment was in any way connected to the situation in Kuwait. "I don't see a link. I was in discussion since January to join the council whereas the four Kuwaiti women held their new positions in May."

Hatoon Ajwad al Fassi, a professor of women's history at the Riyadh-based King Saud University, said she was previously sceptical about women's roles in the council but was now more confident about their participation. "It is common knowledge that the council was under international pressure to have women within its members, especially their presence at international conferences and meetings, where it was said that they would not be welcome without female representatives," Prof al Fassi said.

At the time the appointments were made, they were hailed by local media and the West, but it was without any knowledge of what their jobs would be. "Women were not full members and could not vote on Shoura resolutions nor would the council abide by the suggestions," Prof al Fassi said. "With the new appointees, although again as consultants, I had kind of a different feeling about it, perhaps because I personally know many of them and know what they represent, and I know also that they are not women who would accept to be mere tokens," Prof al Fassi said.

"I have contacted many of them to congratulate them but they were first to stress that they have accepted it on the condition that they will have more say and not attend international conferences (which had previously been their major function)," she said. Mohammed al Zulfah, a former member of the Shoura Council and an advocate for women's rights, said the first six female consultants were marginalised in the council and restricted to representing the council at international gatherings.

"We didn't interact with the female consultants and we didn't have the time to chat with them during sessions," said Mr al Zulfah, who was dismissed from the council in the latest reshuffle. "After a while, the female consultants became a liability and a big expenditure for the council, as on any trip abroad, they needed to take their husbands or their male relatives." Prof al Fassi said she hoped the new consultants would make a difference to women's participation in the Saudi council.

"I hope, too, that it won't be long before we see women as full members in the Shoura Council. The need for women as full-time members is urgent and important to our society and development." wmahdi@thenational.ae