Women in Saudi Arabia expressed relief following King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud's decision to allow women to participate as members in the Shura Council and municipal councils.
The king announced on September 25th that women will be able to serve in the consultative Shura Council as members in two years and as voters and candidates in municipal councils in four years.
Municipal elections, the second of its kind in Saudi Arabia's history, began in the kingdom Thursday (September 29th). Results are expected to be announced Saturday.
Dr. Mohammed al-Zulfa, a former member of the Saudi Shura Council, considered Saudi women's membership in the Shura Council and municipal councils as "a very important step on the road of empowering women to participate in all areas of public life and bridging the gender gap between men and women."
Al-Zulfa said the king's decision was "natural and expected," after it was approved by the Association of Religious Scholars and leading Sharia scholars in Saudi Arabia to make sure that women's political participation does not contradict with the tolerant rules and principles of Islam. He noted that the king's decision enhanced the image of Islam in giving women all of their rights.
"The presence of Saudi women in political circles is a natural and legitimate thing and conforms with the teachings of our religion, especially as Saudi women have sought science and have already become doctors, teachers, engineers and traders," al-Zulfa added. "Saudi Arabia now needs more than ever to benefit from women to help promote society's progress and development in all fields."
Asked about granting Saudi Arabian women the right to drive, al-Zulfa said he believes it is only a matter of time. He said that implementation of such a step is assured as long as women have been given leading decision-making positions and the ability to draw up strategic policies and development plans, something that paves the way for them to obtain more privileges and rights.
Dr. Wafaa Tiba, an advisor in the Shura Council, said the king's new initiative affirms the efforts that were made to promote women's issues and find a balanced formula between men and women.
She said that women's membership in the Shura Council would give them unprecedented political weight that would allow them to make decisions and give advice to the kingdom's leaders. She expected that women in the Shura Council would assume stronger leading roles than the consultative position that is restricted to attending meetings as part of specific specialisations.
Tiba denied that allowing women to take part in the Shura Council and municipal councils came late.
"It came at exactly the right time that suits the circumstances of the current era in which Saudi society can accept this radical change rather than have it imposed from abroad," she said.
Dr. Suhaila Zain al-Abedine, a member of the Saudi National Human Rights Association and the International Union of Muslim Scholars, said the king's decision was consistent with increased calls to expand women's rights to include political and municipal participation, especially because the issue has been debated for a long time among top scholars and faqihs.
Zain al-Abedine described the king's step as "elaborate" and conforms to the reforms the king adopted to strike a gender balance between men and women in political participation and in making an active contribution to public life. She considered the king's decision as a prelude to allowing Saudi women to drive in the near future.
"The king's initiative has rehabilitated Saudi women and restored their God-given natural rights," Zain al-Abedine added. "At the time of Prophet Mohammed, the woman exercised her political rights in elections, allegiance, shura and guardianship in full. She even became the first muhtasiba (in Islamic doctrine, the person who keeps everything in order within Islamic law) in the history of Islam at the time of Commander of the Believers Omar ben al-Khattab. This is in addition to her role in establishing the early Islamic state and building Islamic civilization. She was also entrusted with the secret of Prophet Mohammed's hijra and the copying of the Qur'an and some hadiths at the time of the Companions."
Zain al-Abedine said the king's decision supports Muslim women in general and Saudi women in particular. The initiative restored their political and social prestige, given that they have proven their scientific and intellectual capacities throughout the history of Islam. She confirmed that involving women in politics is a positive step and furnishes an important base for reforming religious discourse that prohibits women's right to guardianship.