By Bhavana Akella
NEW DELHI– Saudi Arabia’s conservative society is changing “in all aspects”, including posibly allowing women to drive or not covering their faces, and it was wrong to link the terror group ISIS to the kingdom or to its Islamic schools, one of the first of the country’s women legislators on a visit to India said.
“Everyone sees ISIS as a phenomenon and Saudi as its parent. But they are attracting people from all over the world – like Denmark and Australia – who did not study our texts. Not everyone in ISIS is a Saudi and not everyone in Saudi has any link to ISIS… I think there are foreign powers helping it monetarily,” Thuraya al-Arrayed, a member of country’s top advisory body who was among the first crop of women appointed to the Majlis Majlis Al Shura (Consultative Assembly), told IANS in an interview here.
Thuraya was here to attend a West Asia Conference.
Terror group ISIS has many members who are “newcomers to Islam and have nothing to do with our (Saudi) schools (of Islam),” she stated.
Saudi Arabia, which in December held its municipal elections, in which women were allowed to vote and contest for the first time, has caught the attention of the world. But women have been in Saudi Arabia’s political sphere three years earlier with their appointment to the Shura, she said. The decision of late King Abdullah to appoint women to the Shura in 2013, a body which drafts and amends laws and examines the annual reports of the state ministries and departments, “has brought a real change in the behaviour of legislators and society,” Thuraya added.
“People used to pass snickering remarks that ‘when men couldn’t do anything, what can women do’ when women entered the Majlis. But after the first year, we were told by the president of the council that there has been real change in the way legislators were more prepared, and punctual about their jobs,” Thuraya said.
With people “getting used to seeing women in high political positions”, it also helped in the recent municipal elections where many men voted for women, which never happened before, she remarked. She added that conservatism moving into a society is “poisonous” and that it can “kill and divide” it.
She also said that there were still a lot of women not convinced about letting women vote and contest, “but 21 women councillors elected in municipal elections is a pretty good number.. it shows the change in attitude.”
The situation will continue to open up further for women as people warm up to the idea, she said.
Even as the global human rights groups have raised alarms about Saudi women not being allowed to drive and having to remain behind the veil, Thuraya said the society in Saudi “is changing not just about clothing, but in all aspects”.
“Driving is the right to movement and any individual cannot be curtailed of it, unless he is a criminal. When women in olden times were free to ride a horse, a donkey or a camel, why not a car? We have unfortunately not been able to change it yet, but we are hopeful women will drive soon,” she added.
The hijab (veil) also comes with “security concerns”, as there have been instances where terrorists dressed in an abaya (cloak) and a hijab got away, she said.
“We are living in a civilized society where one’s face is his/her address, the identity. For some, it is now a choice whether to cover their face or not, which wasn’t the same a few years ago in Saudi. I don’t see any reason to cover a woman up like she doesn’t exist,” Thuraya told IANS.
With the new King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud taking to the throne last year, “things are changing and everything in the society is being taken seriously. Society is moving ahead,” the legislator said, adding that the country’s perception could be “outdated” for the world.
Thuraya, who has worked for long in Saudi’s national oil company, Saudi Aramco, said with the oil prices going down, the king privatised Aramco’s shares to “cut down (the country’s) expenses.”
The oil prices are a mere play of demand and supply and the situation might stabilise in the days to come, she estimated.