Standing out amidst the crowd

Last Updated : 19 August 2016, 18:42 IST
Last Updated : 19 August 2016, 18:42 IST

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There’s not much that the world knows first-hand about Saudi women — and, of course, the news that comes from the region, especially concerning women, is not quite encouraging or hopeful. However, coming face to face with Dr Thuraya Al Arrayed, poet, writer and one of the first few women among the 150-member Shura Council of the Kingdom, certainly breaks the stereotypical image. She’s dignified, well-informed, reasonable, articulate, fearless and much more.

Naturally, the first thought that comes to mind is what made her get into the political space in her country? “I developed a keen interest in politics quite early in life and there were several factors that led to it,” she says. Born in Manama into an educated family, she grew up in a post World War II milieu in which everyone was “interested in political developments, analyses and discussions”. She goes on, “The Arab countries as well as Asian and African nations were being formed then. Independence from Western colonisation, the establishment of nation states, and nationalisation of resources was the order of the time. Indeed, political developments were everyday affairs since I was in primary school and new events were being added to the ones already in our textbooks.”

Political ambitions

Those initial years laid the foundations for a lifetime of keen engagement with regional politics in addition to dealing with crucial social and developmental issues. In fact, her appointment to the Shura Council has put her in a unique position to make a real difference to the lives of her people, something that she has been striving to do from the beginning. “The Shura is an integral principle in the tradition of Islamic governance and ruling system, where decision making is enriched by recommendations from the elected councillors, carefully selected to render dependable advice,” she reveals. 

The Shura Council has access to the annual reports prepared by all government agencies and it assigns them to specific committees to study, discuss and then vote on them before coming up with detailed recommendations for the Royal Court. Its members can propose new rules apart from amendments and changes to the existing rules. “Whereas the Shura Council started off with 30 members, today the numbers have gone up to 150. Each member serves for a four-year term and can go on for three terms or 12 years. No less than 20% members of this council have to be women and the current Shura Council has 30, each from a different discipline. Being appointed to the Shura is definitely not just an honorary reward and recognition it is a huge responsibility,” she says.

While one would imagine that the female council members would automatically deal with the gender issues, surprisingly their role is not restricted to those concerns only. “All subjects are open to us,” elaborates Dr Thuraya, “we are not restricted to any particular area.” For instance, over the past few years, she has been part of the committees looking after foreign affairs, security affairs and social affairs. “Moreover, as a member of the Parliamentary Friendship Committee, I have had the opportunity to visit countries like Poland, Norway and Denmark. I have seen the European Union (EU) parliament in action in Brussels. So, in a sense, my work has a panoramic feel. The concerns are interlinked, whether they are political, social, cultural or economic.”

Matters of women

That, however, does not mean that she has overlooked the important task of securing the position of women in her country. Sure enough, her presence on the Shura has paved the way for initiating several key changes. “Every time a report has to be scrutinised, the members, both men and women, see where the interests of women can be protected and enhanced. Many important, progressive decisions have been adopted by the royal court and the various ministries on our recommendation.

Be it creating employment opportunities that facilitate women in entering the workforce or floating health programmes that cater to their particular needs or improving procedures in courts dealing with women entangled in family disputes like divorce or inheritance issues we have been trying to find ways to overcome the legal and administrative hurdles to close in the gender gap,” she says.

And yet, several challenges remain. She candidly points out, “The major task before us right now is to convince the large segment of the population that is still unsure and hesitant to trust the ability of women to play a major role in developing society, protecting themselves, economically and physically, and make decisions and personal choices. In order for this to happen, I firmly believe that every woman who gets a chance to make a difference must remember that her personal achievements will go a long way in changing the future for other women.”

She does openly talks about how there are a lot of areas that are not open to women even now, like an effective presence in all public interactions, driving, or participating in sporting activities. “All the same, a lot of work and change is under way and I am very optimistic,” she asserts.

Indeed, Dr Thuraya is floored by the never-say-die spirit of Indian women. “It is true that in general it is not a woman’s world. But it’s inspiring to see the immense strides that Indian women have taken towards successfully breaking free. The lessons in this are not lost to others. I am a great admirer of Indian women and hope to see many more brave powerful women leaders like Indira Gandhi,” she signs off.

Published 19 August 2016, 16:19 IST

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