On the wrong side of the fence

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By : Sabria S. Jawhar

As I have pointed out on many occasions the addition of 30 female members to the Shoura Council has created a dynamic shift in the way the government conducts its business. Their inclusion as decision-makers has also brought attention to many women’s issues that have long been ignored.

But that doesn’t mean that the women on the council are always taken seriously. And when women themselves attempt to stall the progress of women’s rights, our patriarchal society is often all too happy to accommodate them. When some men find a female ally who agrees to reinforce outdated gender roles, then they suddenly think it’s fine to having women making decisions. Yet, when women push for equity, they are nothing more than a thorn.

As a case in point is Shoura Council member Nora Aledwani who made an argument recently at a session that echoes the position taken by the conservative elements in our society. A recommendation was before the council for an article that outlined women’s empowerment and for increasing their participation in development projects in the 10th National Economic Plan. The article emphasized the importance of paying closer attention to the international accords on women’s rights.

The plan recommended more participation for women in decision-making positions and that women should be given the chance to hold jobs as high as a minister or a university president. Aledwani argued that the article should be deleted from consideration because she believed it was not in the best interests of Saudi Arabia and would contradict Islam.

Saudi Arabia is already a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and had asked the United Nations — and had received approval — to be exempted from some aspects of the act on religious grounds. For example, Islam opposes abortion and signing such a portion of the document would conflict with the principles of our religion.

However, there is no such conflict in the women’s empowerment article in the 10th National Economic Plan. We have to ask ourselves just how much do we want to be isolated from the international community and since we as a nation are quick to argue that women’s rights, in particular, are guaranteed in Islam. Why shouldn’t we sign such accords contained in the 10th National Economic Plan as long as there are caveats that accommodate our religious beliefs?

Aledwani is entitled to her opinion and her vote, but there was almost a gleeful aspect in the reaction from the male Shoura Council who embraced Aledwani’s position and went out of their way to deny debate from other 30 members including females.

Shoura Council members Lateefa Alshalan and Lubna Alansari objected to the treatment of women council members when the Shoura Council accepted Aledwani’s recommendation to cancel the women’s empowerment article without discussion and without a properly recorded vote.

One member said the results disappeared from the monitors in front of the members who were voting for that article. Alshalan and Alansari said they were not allowed to talk during the voting and their written objections were ignored, which is contrary to law. Some women council members said the incident was not the first time that the female members were discriminated against in the council sessions. Some members complained the session lacked transparency and the session protocols were constantly violated.

Disagreements among the Shoura Council members are natural and healthy, but the problem started when the deputy chief of the Shoura Council, Dr. Mohammad Al-Jeffri, ignored objections raised against deleting the article. Some members alleged deletion of the article was preplanned and that ignoring the objection of women members was out of fear of a confrontation with certain elements.

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