Saudi Arabian women take seats on advisory body


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The Independent Online

Women will be given a voice in shaping Saudi Arabia’s laws for the first time after the country officially swore in 30 female members to the Shura Council.

The council is an appointed body that advises the government on new laws, and functions in place of an elected parliament.

The move represents the first time in country's history that women have been able to hold any political office, and has riled conservative clerics in the Islamic monarchy.

The female members were sworn in on Tuesday by Saudi King Abdullah, who has made tentative steps towards improving women’s rights in recent years. The decision to appoint women to the body was announced in 2011, but their names were only made public last month. It means that one fifth of the Shura Council is now female.

One of the new members, Thuraya al-Arrayed, said the move could change opinions on the role of women in Saudi Arabia.

“I must say it's an historic occasion. I'm honoured to be part of it. If it works, if it is positive then it will change the attitudes that are still worrying about the participation of women,” she told the BBC.

”I'm not just talking about the Shura Council, I'm talking about the empowerment of women and their participation in the general affairs of the country,“ she said.

Saudi Arabia's government is entirely appointed by the king, who is also prime minister. The country's only elections are for half the seats on municipal councils that have few powers.

King Abdullah announced in 2011 that women will also have the right to vote and stand for office in the next municipal ballot

In the ultra-conservative kingdom, which follows a strict version of Sunni Islamic law called Wahhabism, women are banned from driving and need the consent of a male ”guardian“ to work, travel abroad or open a bank account.

A group of female activists began a campaign of civil disobedience in 2011 by openly defying the driving ban. The campaign drew worldwide attention to the lack of equality in the country, and one woman was arrested after uploading a video of herself driving to YouTube.