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Small step forward for Saudi women, but will it affect their daily lives?

By Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
updated 7:31 PM EST, Fri January 11, 2013
"At the end of the day, ... we're still waiting for our basic rights," a Saudi women's rights activist said.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • At least 30 of the 150 seats must be held by women, Abdullah decrees
  • The move was made after consultations with "distinguished scholars"
  • Female members must still be segregated

(CNN) -- Saudi Arabia's king on Friday appointed 30 women to the Shura Council, the first time women have been chosen for the country's top consultative body.

King Abdullah issued a decree that the 150-member council be composed of at least 20% women, the official SPA news agency reported.

Abdullah also ordered that the term of the council members be four years, beginning after the current term ends.

The SPA said the move was made "after consultations with a large number of distinguished scholars from the High Council of Scholars and others."

The king will select the members "from a number of scholars, experts and specialists," SPA said.

The women members, who "will have full membership rights," must be committed to the principles of the Sharia law and must "observe the proper veil (hijab)," the news agency said.

The council will ensure that the women are segregated, entering and exiting through their own doors, having separate offices and sitting and praying separately, it said.

The moves elicited faint praise from some.

"It's a step forward but they are appointed, not elected," said Eman Al Nafjan, a Saudi writer and blogger who tweets as Saudiwoman. "I don't believe we'll see any substantial change except in the mind-set of conservatives. It'll be interesting to see how they'll react to having women on the Shura Council."

Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a prominent Saudi women's rights activist, called the decrees "a good thing, a step forward."

But, she added, "I think it's not enough. It's not going to affect our lives as ordinary women -- our daily life, going to work, finding a job, getting an education. We're still struggling with the guardianship law. Women are still not allowed to drive. We'll have representatives on the Shura Council who can't even go there without a driver."

Still, al-Huwaider said, "It's good, though, because you'll see women doing the same job as men. These women will be role models for the younger generation and maybe in the future we'll have women who are elected, not just appointed. At the end of the day, we're happy but we're still waiting for our basic rights."

The conservative country has been moving toward change under Abdullah, who became king in 2005. In 2009, he appointed Saudi Arabia's first female deputy minister; in 2011, he announced that women can run for office and vote in local elections in 2015.

There are no specific traffic laws that make it illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia.

However, religious edicts are often interpreted as a prohibition of female drivers. Such edicts also prevent women from opening bank accounts, obtaining passports or even going to school without the presence of a male guardian.

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