Saudi King Appoints Women to Shoura Council for First Time

King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the previously all-male Shoura Council in decrees published on Friday and carried by the official Saudi Press Agency. The decrees give women a 20 percent quota in the council, a consultative body appointed by the king.

The King took the decisions following consultations with religious leaders in the country, according to the decrees published by SPA. The decrees said men and women will be segregated inside the council, with a special area designated for females who will enter through a separate door. Female members of the council “will be asked to strictly follow the Islamic Sharia regulations, without any kind of violation, including the Shraia head and face covers,” the royal decree said. It is worth noting that the original text of the decree in Arabic does not include the part about “head and face covers.”

King Abdullah had been slowly introducing reform to the conservative kingdom, where women are subjected to many restrictions including a ban on driving. Saudi Arabia held municipal elections for the first time in 2005, and in September 2011 the king announced plans to name women in the Shoura Council and granted women the right to vote and run as candidates in the next local elections, set for 2015.

The decision “gave confidence to women to take part in important decision-making matters in the country,” Thuraya al-Arrayed, an education specialist, who was appointed to the Shoura Council told Al Arabiya. “We are not here to represent ourselves but to represent the public, women and men alike.”

Not everyone agrees. Using the hashtag “Shoura Council does not represent me” on Twitter, many Saudis expressed their frustration with the practice of appointing members of the council and its limited powers. “The amendments ignored Saudis’ demands of electing the members and increasing the council powers!” activist Manal al-Sharif exclaimed. “It still cannot pass or enforce laws.”

Looking at the list of the 150 members appointed, there are no major surprises. They are your typical academics and bureaucrats who have always made up the great bulk of Shoura over the years. The number of women is more than what local media predicted in the weeks leading to the announcement, and not all of the former female advisers to the council were appointed. Those who wanted a women quota were granted their wish. As for representation of the Shia minority, the number of Shia members is up to six, including two women. The previous council had five Shia members.

Does the inclusion of women in a toothless, unelected body like Shoura matter? It depends on who you ask.

Some outside observers like Toby C. Jones, author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia, said the the Shoura Council is part of cosmetic reforms that don’t mean much. “Saudi celebrates another meaningless institutional development,” he tweeted. Iyad Madani, the former Saudi Minister of Information, said the inclusion of women is worth celebrating because it is a confirmation of their rights in political participation, even if they are still denied other rights like driving. As for the powers of Shoura, he said this is determined more by the performance of its members than its stated mandate.

“Reform is not necessarily a one bundle,” he said.