In 2009 King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz appointed Saudi Arabia's first female deputy minister. The move marked a major step towards improving women's political rights in one of the most conservative places to be a woman. But many Saudi women were aiming for more: full participation in public life. And this month brought them several steps closer.
On Friday, King Abdullah issued a decree allocating women 20 per cent of seats on the 150-member consultative Shura Council, and made good by appointing 30 women. Granting full membership in the parliament is a powerful symbolic decision that indicates the king's commitment to empowering women. The move should go some considerable way to bridging the gender gap.
Since assuming power in 2005, King Abdullah has taken gradual, steady steps towards reforming women's rights. And he's done so amid steep opposition from conservatives clerics. Last year, the king replaced the hard-line chief of the Saudi morality police with a more liberal cleric who is more supportive of gender equality. Female athletes were allowed to participate in the Olympics in London for the first time. And today, women have more opportunities in leadership and senior government positions than ever before.
The caveat, of course, is that in the 21st century women in Saudi Arabia, as in every country in the world, should expect parity with men. Saudi is still far behind the curve. Women face real obstacles working, travelling or opening a bank account without male guardian approval. They also have limited opportunities: a 2010 report by Booz & Company found that Saudi women make up only 14.4 per cent of the labour market even though the majority of university students are women. The kingdom is the only country in the world that doesn't allow women to drive. It is telling that women appointed to the nation's top advisory body can't drive themselves there.
Improving women's rights in Saudi Arabia will take time. It won't be until 2015 that Saudi women will have the right to run and vote in elections. But as slow as steps towards equality have been, this decision is another milestone. "Some may reject the presence of women at the Shura Council, whilst others may accept this," one appointed Shura female member, Thuraya Obaid, told reporters yesterday. "This is a huge challenge for women to prove that their presence is an addition to, not lessening of, Saudi society."