Saudi women’s work and challenges in the council just starting

Saudi women’s work and challenges in the council just starting


Maha Akeel

I was disappointed, dismayed and depressed to say the least. Before the news came out, many women and men supported the stand taken by the two elected women to the Jeddah municipality council, Lama Alsulaiman and Rasha Hefzi, of their right to sit on the same table and in the same room with their male colleagues. The fact was that there were no regulations on the seating arrangement in the main bylaws of the councils. But now the Minister of Rural and Municipality Affairs has officially announced that “new” addendums to the regulations, made after the election results, state that women council members should be in a separate room following council proceedings and discussions and communicating with their colleagues through CCTV and microphones!

Voting for the first time on Dec. 12, 2015 was truly a historic day for Saudi women. We practiced our right to express ourselves after lobbying and demanding that for the past ten years since the first municipal elections were held. Even though not a significantly large number of women registered themselves to vote, for various reasons, 80% of those who did turned up to vote on a weekend as soon as the doors of the voting centers opened early in the morning. That is indicative of their determination.

The bigger surprise was the results. When all expectations predicted that no woman, or at the most one woman, would win, 21 women won across Saudi Arabia, in large cities and small villages. It showed that, contrary to what has been propagated that Saudi society is not ready to see women in public office and hold leadership positions in their community, it does actually supports and believes in women’s abilities and rights. Although many women expected the Ministry of Municipalities and Rural Affairs to appoint an equal number of women as men to the remaining third seats (numbering 1,052) in the municipalities, they were disappointed with the appointment of only 17 more women, bringing the total of women to 38 out of 3,158 council members in the 284 municipalities.

It seems that even this small number of women in the councils is threatening social norms and conservative cultural perceptions of women’s place that they had to be banished. How are they supposed to effectively communicate and participate in the decision making process if they do not have equal access and are marginalized?

Nevertheless, Saudi women have broken another glass ceiling, overcome another hurdle and achieved progress on a grand scale. This point cannot be stressed more. Some views considered this achievement as mere window-dressing. Western media was skeptical of the significance of this in a country where women still can’t drive a car and treated as a minor in need of a male guardian’s permission to work, travel or run her business, which is true to some extent and presents major obstacles to Saudi women’s full independence and contribution to society, but what must be realized is that any measure of power and expression for Saudi women will lead to more gains for women and the society as a whole. That was the hope and expectation.

This is just the beginning of the real work and challenges that the elected and appointed women in the municipality councils will face. Unfortunately, as with every step forward for women setbacks are made under the broad and undefined concept of “Shariah regulations” which apply only where women are concerned. Even though by majority Islamic scholars interpretations across the Muslim world, mixing of men and women in public places including at work is not against Shariah regulations. During the Prophet’s, PBUH, time and his successors, women attended public gatherings, voiced their opinion, objected and argued. They were known to have joined battles, treated the wounded and went about their daily work in markets and elsewhere unhindered.

In the Shoura Council, which is of a higher status then the municipal council, women and men share the same hall, and during committee meetings women are allowed the choice to either sit with their male colleagues or in a separate room. That should be the general rule for meetings. Valuable time and discussion should not be wasted on such trivial matters as “where should the women sit?”

Furthermore, whether it is driving, working, or traveling, it should be the woman’s choice as long as she is mature enough and sane to make her own decisions. If a woman is considered capable and responsible enough to marry, raise a child, get a university degree and work — as doctor with human life under her care, teacher with the country’s future in her hands, or banker entrusted with money — shouldn’t that qualify her to take care of her own life affairs, and by extension the life of her community. It is not a competition between men and women; it is complementary where both are equal partners in life and in serving their society.

The majority of the public who voted for the women and expressed their confidence in them as their representatives should be more vocal in supporting their candidates. Additionally, such incidents undermine whatever progress is achieved for women empowerment and does not give a good impression of Saudi Arabia and its diverse, tolerant and respectful society.

Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer


  1. Nicely said Maha ,unfortunately some males still lives in the dark ages they are scared from being challenged by females,since those males lack of confidence and they hate to be losing to a female ,they put all the obstacles on there ways to make it difficult for them ..simply those type of males are the loser type ,non productive and with a negative attitude.

  2. It’s really time for Saudi men to put on their big boy pants and behave like the good Muslim men they are supposed to be. This means being able to sit in the same room with women colleagues without seeing them as fitna-inducing temptresses. The rest of the world has managed to do this – why can’t Saudi men? This gender segregation thing is carried to such an unhealthy extreme here that it causes more harm than good. Men should carry the responsibility of behaving themselves in the proper manner and stop punishing women for men’s lack of self control and responsibility.

  3. Quite encouraging to read and watch such well nurtured and honest submission from a daughter of the Land…nothing to worry, these are transitory little jerks. Just watch how nature walks with small but find as you look around the world with every single bit of progress in humane challenges, registered ups and downs..slight stagnation as we can not change things by struggling with the existing reality, to change something in reasonable societies, we start building a new and better-model that makes the existing model obsolete! This is what is being done by your responsible well wishers.

    Frankly speaking a reasonable person adapts himself to the modern world ( not the western-world) and on the contrary an unreasonable person persists in trying to adapt the world to himself…therefore,
    all progress depends on the unreasonable man…those who do not move, do not notice their shoe-sole..worn out!
    Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. From this article, two important road blocks can be identified and deserve resolution with soft solutions:
    1.The day our modern-man begins to study ‘soft-facts’ (non-physical phenomena), it will make more progress in one decade than in previous century of existence with the old-man?
    2. Saudi women is progressing quickly and these steps are fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening path to be traveled; and to resolve that, I feel, our only limit is in our realization of ‘future doubts’ made in today!
    Let us move forward with strong and active faith in the loftiness of our cherished values.
    Maha, I don’t know where we are going, but we are on our way…!