A week ago, Saudi Arabia saw something that people in the kingdom often talk about but rarely witness — a potentially important political reform.
King Abdullah announced Jan. 11 that 30 women would join the kingdom’s Shura Council, a consultative body of 150 persons, and that women henceforth would hold 20 percent of the seats. Skeptics cautioned that it’s a symbolic move, since this is an advisory group that doesn’t actually enact any legislation. But it’s a powerful symbol, according to men and women here.
When Abdullah first signaled his plan to name women to the council, a Saudi cleric said it would be “haram,” or forbidden under Islam. The king went ahead and announced the 30 appointees, saying that he had consulted the Senior Ulema Council, the religious body whose approval is one of the pillars of the Saudi monarchy.
A Westerner here told me that, last weekend, several dozen conservative Saudis gathered near Abdullah’s palace to complain, but he wouldn’t see them.
It’s understandable why conservatives would be upset: If Saudi women are deemed worthy of joining the body that advises the king on sensitive matters, it’s harder to justify the many limits on their rights.
I met here last week with Hayat Sindi, a scientist who is one of the newly appointed Shura members. She took her doctorate in biotechnology from Cambridge in 2001, and in the years since she has been a visiting scholar at Harvard, launched two companies and helped run a third.
“I feel the solution for the Middle East is based on women and youth,” she says. Listening to her story of insistent, determined accomplishment, it’s hard to disagree.
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