Saudi Arabia's women allowed to join country's main advisory body but must be separated from men by a screen


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The Independent Online

It was heralded as a big step for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia – but when women join the country’s main advisory body, they will be separated from the men by a screen.

An internal communications system will allow men and women to debate when female members attend the Shura Council, a consultative body appointed by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, for the first time early next year, a Saudi official told Al-Watan newspaper.

King Abdullah announced in September last year that he would allow women to join the 150-member assembly, but it is not yet clear how many women will be included when the council reconvenes. As the oil-rich kingdom takes a few tentative and grindingly slow steps towards granting women more rights, compromise must be made with powerful hardline religious clerics, many of whom oppose the even the smallest of advances.

Tribal customs and adherence to the ultra-conservative Wahhabi sharia law mean that segregation of the sexes is widespread in Saudi Arabia, where women are still not allowed to drive. They must use separate entrances at banks and offices, and a plan to build a city for female workers only has been announced.

The king has also said that women will be allowed to stand in the country’s municipal elections in 2015. Although the decisions were welcomed by many women and by human rights groups, Saudi women still face severe restrictions.

The guardianship system means they need permission from a male relative or their husband to work, travel, study or marry. A grassroots movement to push to secure women the right to drive resulted in the campaign’s leader being jailed briefly after posting a video on the internet showing her behind the wheel of a car.