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 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. A million thanks for this wonderful outstanding step, which is an essential move toward galvanizing the role of Saudi women in society.
Now Saudi Arabia takes fourth place in the Arab region in terms of women’s political participation in Parliament.
Today, King Abdullah’s determination is geared toward empowering women not only socially and economically, but also politically, while boosting their role in mainstream Saudi national life. He is addressing the traditional gender inequalities through the adoption of a national agenda favorable to a greater role for women in politics. By opening new opportunities for them in the Shoura Council, he is giving women the tools they need to lead in the decision-making process. Moreover, by supporting and promoting Saudi women’s rights, he is establishing a foundation of equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women in general and in particular at the higher executive level.
The crucial step taken by King Abdullah is a natural reinforcement of the true spirit of Islam. In Islam, women are entitled to the same freedom of expression as men. Women participated in serious discussions with the Prophet (May peace be upon him) and other Muslim leaders. Islam also granted women the right to participate in political affairs and to hold government positions. 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.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) recognizes the right of every person to take part in the government of his or her country. It states that the equal access of men and women to power, decision-making and leadership at all levels is vital for the proper functioning of their country.
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.”
Now, his vision has turned into a positive reality. We have all witnessed how the country has been moving away from extreme conservatism to a more liberal stance, encouraging creativity, innovation, and sustainable development. Furthermore, significant reforms have occurred in several fields, allowing women to make a vital contribution in society. Not only are Saudi women participating in the development of their country and rising to leadership in every field, but they have also become a considerable social and economic asset.
Remarkable progress has been achieved in the Kingdom over the past few years in the implementation of the third United Nations Millennium Development Goal related to promoting gender equality and empowering women. Active policies and national programs are currently redressing long-standing discrepancies between the positions of men and women. The advancement of gender equality in the education system has led to a substantial decrease in young female illiteracy. As result, the gender gap in enrolment that once existed throughout the education system has been closed at the primary, secondary and university levels.
Education has provided women with the necessary academic and professional equipment to participate in the labor market. Currently, massive and rigorous national efforts are going on in the Kingdom to promote the dynamic status of Saudi women. Huge investments are targeted at reforming the women’s education system and expanding the training sector through vocational training programs in various regions of the country. Further modifications are under way to improve the quality of the girls’ school curriculum and women’s university programs so as to meet the needs of a modern labor market. Today, Saudi women hold positions that were once considered beyond their capacity and the national labor policy is endorsing the creation of diversified jobs so as to raise their contribution in the economic sector toward a knowledge market economy. The inclusion of highly qualified women in the Shoura Council will provide excellent role models for young Saudi women, the resource of the future.
It is vital that the voices of Saudi women are heard in the Shoura Council to foster broader participation in policy making, along with an extensive exchange of ideas and greater transparency in the formulation, enactment, evaluation and modification of major national policies. The empowerment of women as political leaders will enhance the country’s governance and development policy as well as introduce positive developments, changes and reforms in education, employment, health and infrastructure. Now the doors are open for Saudi women: it is time for us to pass through those doors and act.
Dr. Mona AlMunajjed is a sociologist, author and adviser on social and gender issues.
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