Saudi Arabia's female Shura Council members carry burden of expectation

New Shura members tell The National's Elizabeth Dickinson they will push for changes in government policies affecting women - gradually.

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Dr Thuraya Al Arrayed, a writer and journalist, says she had no inkling that King Abdullah would appoint her to the country's Shura Council.

So in January when she was among the first group of women ever invited to join the 150-member advisory body - 30, in all - she was shocked.

"I felt overcome by an immense sense of awe and responsibility for the trust I was awarded," she recalled. "Then my emotions settled into a deep personal commitment to make this first experience succeed."

Dr Arrayed is not alone in feeling a sense of obligation to ensure that the precedent-setting move by the Saudi king meets expectations.

While many welcomed the appointments of women to the council, the new roles were tehotly opposed by some. A member of the Islamic Ministry for Daawah, Guidance and Endowments, Ahmed Al Abdulqader, called the new members "prostitutes."

The Shura Council's new members are aware of the burden of history that rests on their shoulders, Dr Arrayed and two other appointees told The National. They said they would push for changes in government policies affecting women - gradually.

"The swearing-in was an emotionally charged experience for all involved," Dr Arrayed said. "The king's short speech was very clear and to the point: 'The strategy is: no hasty actions or loud proclamations but well thought of actions to produce positive lasting impact.'"

The Shura Council recommends legislation to the king and has 13 subcommittees that focus on issues ranging from security to the economy to family life.

Observers predicted that the Council's new female members would be assigned to those subcommittees that only deal with "women's issues". That was the role performed by a dozen Saudi women who had served as advisers to the council.

Instead, the new members were given seats on all 13 panels, said Dr Wafa M Taibah, a former adviser to the council and now one its new members.

"As a member of the Shura now, our role has expanded and is more official," she said. "Women's voices will not only be restricted to women's issues per se, but to all issues discussed in Shura."

King Abdullah's naming of women to the Shura Council immediately sparked a logistical question - namely, in a country that maintains strict gender segregation in most public places, would a barrier be constructed in the council chamber to separate male and female delegates?

Dr Arrayed said the speculation was misplaced.

"I do not expect there will be any physical barriers in the main general council meetings," she said. "The ladies will be seated together alphabetically. The office spaces are separated and private, which is comforting and more conducive to serious work."

Dr Hanan Al Ahmadi said the Shura appointees could spark further conversations about women's roles more broadly in society.

"I believe the presence of the women in the Shura Council will indirectly reflect on other aspects of the public role of women in a positive manner," she said.

"Society will be more accommodating and accepting to women presence in the public domain."

Although they share the same gender, the priorities of the council's newest members for their four-year terms are as varied as the women's experiences.

Dr Al Ahmadi, who has a PhD in public health, won appointment to the health and environment subcommittee. She said that she plans to focus her work on access to and quality of health care.

"High population growth and the high demand on health services due to the large proportion of expatriates in Saudi Arabia overshadow most attempts for reform," she said. "I hope to see more focus on primary healthcare and on chronic illness such as diabetes and hypertension, the most pressing health problems in Saudi Arabia today."

Dr Taibah, who ahas a PhD in educational psychology, said the focus of her attention would be those Saudis on the periphery of society - children and the elderly

"Given that the life expectancy in Saudi Arabia rising and it is around 75 years now, and we in the kingdom did not plan enough for this extended life span, we should be focusing on care giving, rehabilitation, healthcare, pensions and social security nets that support elderly in Saudi," she said.

Asked about the repercussions of the Arab Spring for Saudi Arabia, Dr Taibah and Dr Arrayed said the upheavals would have an impact on public discussions in the kingdom.

They will contribute to the public's views about "stability, safety and security," they said.

"The neighbourhood has surprised everybody with its sudden volcano bursts, and is still suffering the devastating results," added Dr Arrayed. "What we see so far is very sad. Even though  they have not settled, I am sure the lessons and repercussions, and unforeseen side effects are not lost on all observers including KSA, both the decision-makers, and the man in the street. Agitators, opportunists and others fishing in murky waters, are finding it more difficult to sell their ideas two years after the neighbouring turbulence, despite the attractive banners.

"I personally prefer deep rooted change to come through positive teamwork approach and the cooperation of all involved."