Saudi women emerging

Hayat Sindi , Saudi shura CouncilBy: David Ignatius

A week ago, Saudi Arabia saw something that people in the kingdom often talk about but rarely witness — a potentially important political reform.

King Abdullah announced Jan. 11 that 30 women would join the kingdom’s Shura Council, a consultative body of 150 persons, and that women henceforth would hold 20 percent of the seats. Skeptics cautioned that it’s a symbolic move, since this is an advisory group that doesn’t actually enact any legislation. But it’s a powerful symbol, according to men and women here.

When Abdullah first signaled his plan to name women to the council, a Saudi cleric said it would be “haram,” or forbidden under Islam. The king went ahead and announced the 30 appointees, saying that he had consulted the Senior Ulema Council, the religious body whose approval is one of the pillars of the Saudi monarchy.

A Westerner here told me that, last weekend, several dozen conservative Saudis gathered near Abdullah’s palace to complain, but he wouldn’t see them.

It’s understandable why conservatives would be upset: If Saudi women are deemed worthy of joining the body that advises the king on sensitive matters, it’s harder to justify the many limits on their rights.

I met here last week with Hayat Sindi, a scientist who is one of the newly appointed Shura members. She took her doctorate in biotechnology from Cambridge in 2001, and in the years since she has been a visiting scholar at Harvard, launched two companies and helped run a third.

“I feel the solution for the Middle East is based on women and youth,” she says. Listening to her story of insistent, determined accomplishment, it’s hard to disagree.

Dressed in an abaya whose somber black is enlivened by colorful, embroidered sleeves, Sindi balks when I ask her age, not for reasons of vanity but because she isn’t sure. She says there’s no reliable record of her birth date.

From this humble beginning in Mecca, Sindi grew to become a prodigious student. She remembers reading a book in her early teens about the discovery of DNA by British scientists and dreaming that she would study in Britain someday. She did just that after college, against her father’s initial wishes and despite the fact she knew little English — earning a bachelor’s degree at King’s College, London, and then her doctorate at Cambridge.

In her last year at Cambridge, she ran out of money and was afraid she would have to drop out. Abdullah, who was then crown prince, was known to support women’s education, so she wrote to the Saudi Embassy in London and asked for help. She said that the king called personally and asked her how much she needed to finish her studies.

The rest of Sindi’s résumé is equally improbable and impressive. She formed a company to develop a new diagnostic tool for early-stage breast cancer. She joined the board of Diagnostics for All, which creates low-cost diagnostic devices for developing countries. And in November she started a Saudi entrepreneurship lab called the i2 Institute for Imagination and Ingenuity. She plans to award fellowships annually to a dozen would-be Saudi entrepreneurs, men and women.

What difference will Sindi make on the Shura Council? She says that she wants to encourage peer-reviewed science and entrepreneurship, but she understands that part of her role will be to expand Saudis’ expectations of what women can accomplish.

Waiting for reform in Saudi Arabia is like watching the grass grow. It often seems as if nothing is happening. But during the past two years of Arab revolution, it appeared possible that Saudi Arabia might be the next autocratic nation to face popular revolt. As Karen Elliott House asks in “On Saudi Arabia,” her carefully reported new book: “Can the Al Saud regime reform in time to save itself?”

Thirty new members of an appointive advisory council aren’t going to rescue the monarchy. But the Shura appointments suggest that Abdullah, who at 88 may have limited time left on the throne, wants to set in motion a framework for transition to a more modern nation.

Another recent move was Abdullah’s selection of 53-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the former Saudi head of counterterrorism, as minister of the interior — making him the first member of his generation in a top leadership position.

The wheels of change move slowly in the kingdom. They do seem to be turning, but is it fast enough?

Washington Post

  • nagy_michael2

    The Saudis religious bigots are only concerned with their powers and nothing else. They lack the intelligence and are afraid of women sharing powers. They use religion to empower themselves and stop their country from moving forward. If you’re going to pray 5 times a day at least do not preach hate and violance. I am not sure if Prophet Mumhamed had this mind..

    • 5thDrawer

      No-one is ‘sure’ of what he had in mind, Nagy, except winning battles. He couldn’t write down his own thoughts. ;-)
      Abdullah has had a rough row to hoe, however, in an attempt to effect changes. He outlawed the various forms of female circumcision, but the old ladies still hold down the young girls to have it done by people happy to charge for their ‘expertise’ in an ancient cultural ritual of removing future pleasure from a female.
      For that matter, see the uproar as we wait until men decide that it wasn’t necessary for them either.

      • Hannibal

        chop chop… he he but somehow it did not limit reproduction… Like cattle that is.

  • nagy_michael2

    The Saudis religious bigots are only concerned with their powers and nothing else. They lack the intelligence and are afraid of women sharing powers. They use religion to empower themselves and stop their country from moving forward. If you’re going to pray 5 times a day at least do not preach hate and violance. I am not sure if Prophet Mumhamed had this mind..

    • 5thDrawer

      No-one is ‘sure’ of what he had in mind, Nagy, except winning battles. He couldn’t write down his own thoughts. ;-)
      Abdullah has had a rough row to hoe, however, in an attempt to effect changes. He outlawed the various forms of female circumcision, but the old ladies still hold down the young girls to have it done by people happy to charge for their ‘expertise’ in an ancient cultural ritual of removing pleasure from a female.
      For that matter, see the uproar as we wait until men decide that it wasn’t necessary for them either.

      • Hannibal

        chop chop… he he but somehow it did not limit reproduction… Like cattle that is.

  • FreetheME

    A cleric says it is haram for a woman to join the Shura Council. I am a Muslim and would like someone to please explain to me why the f@@k it is Haram.
    You Saudi animals, give these woman a chance, Let them be what is their god given right to be, A human.
    Or are you scared that maybe, just maybe they might be smarter and make more sense than you

    • Prophettttt

      FreetheME, This so called cleric, does not speak for “Saudis” or Islam..He speaks for the Wahabi twisted and rigid school only. Wahabis are not true Muslims,and do not speak for Muslims . Wahabis barley represent 2%(some one correct me if my number is wrong,please) of all Muslims.Although it is the official religion for the kingdom, Wahabis are only powerful because of the agreement they forged with house of Saud. The founder of this wicked school, Mohammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was discredited and opposed by his own father,and his brother, as a wicked man.His brother, Salman Ibn Abd al-Wahhab who was an Islamic scholar and judge ,wrote a book in refutation of his brothers’ new teachings, called: “The Final Word from the Qur’an, the Hadith, and the Sayings of the Scholars Concerning the School of Ibn `Abd al-Wahhab”), also known as: “Al-Sawa`iq al-Ilahiyya fi Madhhab al-Wahhabiyya” (“The Divine Thunderbolts Concerning the Wahhabi School”).

      The Waahabis and the house of Saud,together, hijacked the Arab peninsula and changed its historic name of Najad and Hijaz to Saudi Arabia. These backward people should remember that ,not even Prophet Mohammad thought of changing the name of the Arab peninsula ,and we all know He could have.
      An entire country named after a man,and millions of people have to identify with his name. this is not Islam,nor is it legal by any standard. This is backwardness financed by lots of money,and it is dangerous to the entire region ,and possibly to the world.
      If Abdulla is thinking He could correct history, Good for try,but If his religious police are forbidding saudi males from attending any public Malls if they were wearing trousers and t-shirts because such attire is considered underwear, than all of his efforts are only media propaganda.

  • FreetheME

    A cleric says it is haram for a woman to join the Shura Council. I am a Muslim and would like someone to please explain to me why the f@@k it is Haram.
    You Saudi animals, give these woman a chance, Let them be what is their god given right to be, A human.
    Or are you scared that maybe, just maybe they might be smarter and make more sense than you

    • Prophettttt

      FreetheME, First,This so called cleric, does not speak for Saudis or Islam..He speaks for the Wahabis only. Wahabis are not true Muslims,and do not speak for Muslims .Although it is the official religion for the kigndom, Wahabis are only powerful because of the agreement between them and house of Saud. They hijacked the Arab penusila and changed its historic name of Najad and Hijaz to Saudi Arabia.

  • 5thDrawer

    A month later … were they allowed to speak yet? And did the men sit around to listen?

    • 5thDrawer

      4 months pass …. any quotes?

  • 5thDrawer

    A month later … were they allowed to speak yet? And did the men sit around to listen?

    • 5thDrawer

      4 months pass …. any quotes?