By Arab News
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah’s announcement that women will become members of the Shoura Council (consultative body) and will be allowed to vote and contest the municipal elections is an extraordinary development.
The king, who is quietly leading the incremental changes at a measured pace, urged his countrymen to meet the challenges and obstacles on their path and work hard to overcome them. He said the Kingdom aims to achieve balanced modernization that conforms to Islamic teachings and values while emphasizing the key role played by women in Islamic history.
Change has been slow, but the king has accelerated the reform process by working within a consensus that takes into account the varied viewpoints in the Kingdom. The sagacious king has bided his time in bringing about these changes, thus highlighting his vision with clarity and determination.
Abdullah, who has bridged centuries of change, has been the catalyst of change in the Kingdom. For the past decade, he has been stressing that women are pivotal for the country’s well being. And he has been initiating reforms, one of the latest being the appointment of a woman to the Cabinet.
So changes, although imperceptible, are under way. Steps to tackle segregation, women’s empowerment and education and providing more respect to women have been taken and woven into the system gradually. Today’s decision, however, is a momentous step that could change the social and political fabric of the Kingdom. The right for women to join the Shoura Council is significant as it is the most influential political body in the country.
The Shoura, established in 1993, offers opinions on general policies in the Kingdom and debates economic and social development plans. Till now, the council viewed the issues in a one-dimensional frame, with the views and advice coming mostly from men.
Now with the women taking their place in the council, many issues would be viewed from a multidimensional perspective.
Although the announcement was not totally unexpected, it came as a surprise. The king has been a strong supporter of women’s issues and has listened to and acted for their empowerment. That it was a surprise is in the timing. He could have used the occasion of the National Day to make these announcements, but he chose not to. He used the august consultative body to give women two major rights.
In announcing the reforms, the king rooted his decision in religion and appreciated the Ulema for supporting him. The announcement also acknowledged the yearning for greater social freedoms in the Kingdom.
The king’s bold initiatives throw up some key questions on the road to change. On a macro level, the Kingdom will have to address the issue of continuing reforms with the women’s voices too being heard. For there’ll be more mobility, more exposure and more intertwined problems arising from their presence in the council. On a micro level, the participation of women in the municipal polls, not in the one that is being contested on Sept. 29 but in the next one, will need new parameters, more awareness and improved education at all levels to help the citizens march in step, and together, on the path to progress.