Saudi Arabia’s king on Friday granted women seats on the country’s top advisory council for the first time, giving them a long-awaited toehold in the ultraconservative kingdom’s male-dominated political system.
King Abdullah’s decrees come against the backdrop of heavy restrictions on women, who are not allowed to travel, work, study abroad, marry, get divorced or gain admittance to a public hospital without permission from a male guardian.
Recently, airport authorities were instructed to send text messages to the phones of male guardians — husbands, fathers or brothers — with information about the movements of their wives, daughters or sisters.
“The decision is good, but women issues are still hanging,” said Wajeha al-Hawidar, a prominent Saudi female activist. “For normal women, there are so many laws and measures that must be suspended or amended for women to be dealt with as grown-ups and adults, without a mandate from guardians.”
However, she said that having female members of the council could help to change the image of women in society.
“Men can finally respect women when they see them playing a [traditional] male role,” she said.
The nation’s official news agency said the king issued two royal decrees granting women 30 seats on the Shura Council, which has 150 members and a president. The council reviews laws and questions ministers, but does not have legislative powers. All members are appointed by the king and serve four-year terms.
Since 2006, women have been appointed only as advisers to the body.
The king has made incremental steps toward reform, but appeared to be treading carefully to avoid angering powerful religious clerics, among them the country’s grand mufti who most recently spoke out against the mixing of genders last week.
In modern Saudi Arabia, which is the birthplace of Islam and the home of its holiest sites, the governing Al Saud family supports the clerics and the clerics support the family’s rule.
According to the decrees, the female council members must be “committed to Islamic Shariah disciplines without any violations” and be “restrained by the religious veil.”
The veil in Saudi Arabia typically refers to a full face covering, also known as a niqab.
The decrees also specified the women will be entering the council building from special gates, will sit in reserved seats and pray in segregated areas.
Earlier, officials said male and female council members would be separated by a screen, and would communicate on an internal network.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organization of parliaments, commended the move as “another step forward” for women’s political rights in Saudi Arabia.