FOR Pakistanis, who have twice elected a woman as prime minister, it is hardly surprising to see females in leadership roles. Yet those aware of the complex nature of Saudi Arabian politics and society will agree that the Saudi monarch’s recent decrees appointing women to the consultative Shura Council for the first time are nothing short of revolutionary. The 30 women will be selected, not elected, to the advisory body, which does not have legislative powers. The move seems to be in line with the reform-minded Saudi ruler’s overall agenda. The king has said women will be able to vote in the 2015 municipal elections, while women athletes from the desert kingdom competed in the Olympics for the first time in last year’s London games, eliciting howls of protest from conservatives at home.
Though the move is positive, it may face resistance from ultra-conservative elements within the powerful clergy as well as traditionalists within the royal family. Yet while women have gained in many areas under Abdullah’s rule, they still cannot drive in Saudi Arabia or travel freely without the consent of a male relative. Segregation of the sexes is strictly enforced. Even the women members of the Shura will be separated from their male counterparts. Hence prospects of change must be accompanied with cautious optimism. And expecting the king’s move to lead to full emancipation for women would be far-fetched, though it is a step in the right direction. Saudi Arabia must realise that the world is moving forward and it is impractical to expect archaic mores to fit in with the requirements of the 21st century. To varying degrees, Muslim nations across the globe have given their women citizens increased rights, though there is still some way to go until equal rights are achieved. What is more, due to the considerable flow of petrodollars the kingdom’s citizens have tasted the fruits of modernity. So no matter how much the traditionalists may want to keep Saudi society frozen in time, a considerable segment of the kingdom’s population, especially its women, will want to create a more equal and open society.