By Hala Alwagdani, In the beginning of 2013, King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz of Saudi Arabia announced in a royal decree the appointment of 30 Saudi females in the Saudi Consultative Council. This has been only one of the steps in King Abdullah’s reformist style of ruling. In 2005, he introduced municipal elections, the first democratic elections in Saudi history. In 2011, he granted women the right to vote in these elections and proposed that women run for municipal elections in 2015. What provoked all these pro-female reforms all of a sudden?
Author of A Most Masculine State, Dr. Madawi Al-Rasheed argues that the international community only highlighted the plight of Saudi women after the September 11th attacks. She argues that internal and international powers, in response to 9/11, exerted pressures that led the Saudi government to push for reforms. The primary goal of these reforms was to disassociate Saudi Arabia from the ultra-religious Salafi image that has been portrayed in the media. However, due to the deep history and strong relationship between the religious Salafi influence in the country and the house of Saud, the Saudi government faced difficulties in shaking off this image instantaneously. Also, the growing domestic dissent by the long suppressed liberals and human rights activists needed to be addressed. Moving forward, it seemed that the Saudi government decided to adopt these female-centered reforms.
In the eyes of the Saudi government, empowering women will help restore the Saudi image without any real threat to the political stability of the regime. Badr Al-Ibrahim, contributor at Al-Jazeera, argues that these political-natured reforms will not create internal conflicts with the Salafi party. This is because these reforms are not social and instead political, therefore, won’t affect the greater female population of Saudi Arabia economically nor socially. Add to that the fact that municipal and consultative council positions don’t really have actual influence whether held by men or women. Dr. Al-Rasheed argues that by implementing these female-centered reforms, “the authoritarian – Saudi- state kills two birds with one woman.”
So where does all this leave Saudi women? In this age of reform, regardless of the intention behind it, more opportunities are arising for young Saudi women. As long as these opportunities are still available, there will be more hope for change in the future.