Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Women In the Shoura Council

That King Abdullah came through on his promise to have women on the Shoura Council was huge news in Saudi the day it happened (and a couple of weeks after, what with the knee jerk reactions and all).  Big ups to the King and long may he live!

Women appointed to the Shoura Council might be a new thing for the boys to deal with, but women wondering through the Council hallways isn't unknown, which surprises some people I've spoken to who presume that, prior to the historic appointment of women, the council buildings were little more than an all boys clubroom.

The Council provides tours of their offices for various groups and, for the last couple of years, has employed two women in their public relations department to more appropriately cater to questions and tour requests from the female half of Saudi society.

Why women touring through the Shoura buildings should be a surprise is probably due to the 'anti-female' impression that many people from outside of Saudi, has of Saudi.  Granted, some of my posts (written on bad days) do assist the development of a few misperceptions - like the post where I said this is a man-centered society that thinks its god's gift to women... oh no, wait - that's true.  Anyway, every other country provides guided tours of their government buildings, why not Saudi?

For those of you who aren't aware the Shoura Council, or Majlis al-Shura, is a council that advises the king on issues of importance to the country of Saudi Arabia.  Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi, is credited with setting up the first Shoura Council in 1927 with a membership of less than 25.  It went through a few ups and downs with subsequent kings before becoming what it is today.   The current council has 150 members.  Historically all members were men.  Now, there are 30 women on the council.

Having such a body is not a new concept for Saudi.  It is actually based on an Islamic practice, mentioned many times in the Quran, called Shura (meaning consultation) that basically allows the people access to their leader and learned citizens to discuss, or consult over, issues of concern.

Apparently, when Muhammed was alive, women were part of Shoura process but, since his death, obviously things went a little askew.  Here's hoping the latest decision by the King will get things back on track again.

A year or so ago, Salwa, from Haya Tours, organised the first group of Expat women to tour through the Shoura Council.  The council members were, so I heard, a little apprehensive about this idea.  They weren't sure what to expect. They needn't have worried.  The tour was, and continues to be, a success and, one day, I went along.

There were about twenty women on our tour.  Once we arrived at the doors of the council we all began putting on our headscarves only to be told not to worry, covering our heads wasn't necessary.  We were surprised, but didn't argue.

Our tour started with meeting one of the PR ladies and then being shown a video about the history of the Shoura Council - what they do, how the group functions, who is appointed, how they are chosen, what their responsibilities are, terms of engagement etc, etc. (If you'd like all that info, wikipedia has it).

Then we were shown through the buildings which are impressive, though not overstated. (For some reason I always presume 'oil rich wealth' means 'excessively opulent decor').  The old 'point 'n shoot' camera got a workout. Here's a few pics from our visit.

We got to stand in The Great Hall and pretend to be King, making announcements...
I doubt the King turns up in his worn out runners to the Countil
View into the Great Hall from the door.
We were shown round table committee rooms.  This one was apparently set aside especially for the women as there were groups of young men also touring at the same time as us and accidental mix ups are always better avoided.

All the rooms are very modern and have everything that a well-appointed governement office should have to function properly.

The waiting rooms are very comfortable.

The larger waiting room where everyone gathers before proceeding to the Great Hall is very roomy. The wall hangings are beautifully embroidered and the door panels are just stunning.

One part of the council buildings has articfacts, books and pictures about the councils history.  Here's handwritten minutes from yesteryear.

Picures of the kings and councils adorned the walls.

And we visited the council library with book on laws from all over the world.

We also got to sit in on a council session - listening from a viewing platform behind tinted glass.  The council had been informed of our presence and, we were told by the Arabic women in our group, the speaker paused mid-discussion (the topic was improving processes for doing business in Saudi) to welcome us to the Council and even made mention of Haya Tours and the great work they were doing with cross-cultural promotion.  The ladies were buzzing that Salwa's company was mentioned by name.  Salwa missed it because she was outside the room organising our next move.

The tour of the Shoura Council was quite interesting and lots of questions were asked, mainly pertaining to the upcoming appointment of women.

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