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In the past few years, women have been increasingly assuming leadership positions in public and private sectors of Saudi Arabia. In addition to being appointed to municipal councils and the Royal Advisory Shura Council, a handful of women have now been chosen as directors of financial institutions, a dean of a university, an undersecretary for the General Authority for Sports, and a director of a resort chain. The fast-paced appointments coincide with the expansion of grassroots social media campaigns led by women activists, and have been celebrated as significant steps toward an expansion of women’s participation in public and private institutions in Saudi Arabia.
The development of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia has always been structured within tight limitations. Women have served as symbols of traditional values within the state’s religious institutions, which have historically constrained women’s citizenship rights in the kingdom. The shift to a nationalist project focusing on economic reforms, following the adoption of Saudi Vision 2030, seems to be leading toward a hybrid form of modernization. Vision 2030 explicitly targets an increase in women serving in senior-level positions from the current 1.27 percent to 5 percent. In addition to the need to increase women’s participation by providing opportunities to gain experience, the unstated imperative also is to improve the image of Saudi Arabia internationally, as it seeks greater economic integration and foreign investment. This process is well-articulated by the theory of neopatriarchy, which posits that the patriarchal structures and gender relations of traditional Arab societies will continue to be enforced in modern states. The result is a hybrid society in which some women gain leadership positions while the state continues to enforce restrictive laws and public policies to maintain the structure of a conservative traditional society.
A useful case study is the experience of women who have been appointed to the Shura Council. Shura members, male or female, do not possess legislative or oversight powers. However, they discuss legislation and suggest resolutions to the king. Members are typically from conservative Islamist backgrounds, or are technocrats, university professors, or businessmen. Appointment of women to the Shura Council was part of a number of state-managed reforms following the Arab uprisings in 2011. The first cohort of women members was appointed in 2013. Women members followed the usual selection criteria, being drawn from apolitical, subject-matter experts or religious circles. The king, surprisingly, also appointed women members who actively discussed gender reforms, like Thoraya Obaid, the previous director for the U.N. Population Fund, along with Latifaah Alshaalan and Haya Almanea, professors of humanities who wrote critically on women’s rights in local media. Women occupied 30 seats in the 150-member council, a significant percentage, but none of them were selected to head any of the 14 specialized committees. In addition, the Islamic and legal committee, which is responsible for legal reforms has no women members.
The regulations of the Shura Council were recently modified to allow members to submit their resolutions directly to the king, thus bypassing the Council of Ministers and granting the Shura Council greater influence, including the final decision on issues of disagreement between the two councils. For any resolution to be accepted by the Shura Council, it must be approved by no less than two-thirds of its members, including the speaker (director) or whoever he may deputize. Therefore, obtaining the majority of votes for gender reform resolutions is a challenge, and not only because of the expected resistance from the conservative male members but also because several of the appointed women proved to be equally resistant to gender reforms. Indeed, some of these women defended the state’s gender policies and affirmed the state’s narrative. For example, Nora Bin Adwan, the chair of a women’s research unit at King Saud University, led most of the Shura resistance against proposed gender reform resolutions, such as the law against sexual harassment that she considered to be a prelude to the introduction of mixed gender work environments. In response, some women Shura members filed a formal complaint against the derogatory use of the term “gender mixing.” On another occasion, Bin Adwan requested removing a recommendation for the government to support the international conventions and treaties concerning women’s rights from the Shura discussion of the country’s 10th developmental plan – a plan submitted every five years by the ministry of planning to be approved by the king and Shura Council. Consequently, 30 council members submitted a written request to refuse the removal of the recommendation, and two women members walked out of the meeting – an unprecedented move – in objection to the speaker’s refusal to recognize their requests to discuss the removal.
Bin Adwan and other conservative members, while holding exceptional public positions exceeding the traditional gender boundaries, worked against any significant reform on women’s issues. Nevertheless, the few women who pushed for legal gender reforms persisted, and used their leadership positions on the Shura Council to argue against the back-room politics of the council. In addition, they took the unusual step to engage directly with the public through social media despite vicious online attacks from conservatives. The first term for women in the Shura Council ended without effecting significant gender reforms in a number of legislative areas, including the nationality act, personal status law, anti-sexual harassment law, anti-hate speech law, and national unity law, let alone revoking the decades-old ban on women driving. By the end of the first term, four of the women members who pushed for gender reform resolutions requested to be relieved from their posts in a published statement – another first – citing obstructive regulations as the reason for their resignation. In that sense, appointing women to the Shura Council has helped in publicly portraying the different attitudes toward approaching gender reforms within the council, and opened these differences to a public debate.
The most recent Shura appointments in December 2016 demonstrated a shift by the state in the choice of the appointed women members. The king appointed fewer women members with conservative Islamic credentials and none of them were influential public figures. There was a notable change in the professions of the newly-appointed women, reflecting a broader, diverse base, which included a businesswoman, an economist, a sports entrepreneur, a diplomat, and a feminist scholar. Nevertheless, the first discussion on a gender-related issue ran into problems when the specialized Shura committee for education and scientific research refused a recommendation submitted by three women members, Lina Almaeena, Latifah Alshaalan, and Ata Alsubaiti, to open a women’s physical education college, while at the same time accepting a recommendation to upgrade a sharia community college in the Eastern Province to a full-fledged Islamic university.
While women leaders continue to assume official responsibilities in a political environment that is not yet ready to challenge the male-dominated power structure, their participation is now in the public realm and subject to debate and discussion. Many women leaders acknowledge the appointments as important first steps of the state’s commitment to women’s empowerment, and some reportedly prefer a cautious approach for deeper reforms. Women’s risk aversion, even when they believe in the necessity of pushing for gender reforms, is grounded in their belief that they must be socially perceived as symbols of acceptable, rather than revolutionary, change. Some of them feel that the inevitable societal tension with conservatives over open challenges to the status quo will be damaging to women’s acceptance and credibility as leaders in the long term. This assumption is more likely shaped by women’s perceptions and social pressure rather than by direct experience. Alshaalan, one of the most outspoken activist members of the Shura Council, particularly on social media, enjoys broader public support than her more cautious colleagues. Surprisingly her membership on the council was renewed for a second term despite her active public discussions of gender reforms.
The growing presence of women in leadership positions in Saudi Arabia is a positive development, but the real challenge is how they will leverage their positions for wider reforms as they gain experience and credibility within these state institutions.
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