King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has appointed female members to the Consultative Council for the first time, naming 30 women to the 150-member advisory body.
The appointments, reported by the official Saudi Press Agency, came after Abdullah issued a decree requiring at least 20 percent of members should be women. It says they must observe Islamic law and be properly covered, and will enjoy full rights in the council, have a separate entrance to the chamber and sit in a special section apart from men.
"I'm very happy. This is a step forward," said Wajeeha al-Howaider, a leading women's rights activist, in a phone interview from the Saudi city of Dhahran. "Women's representation, though small, will help women because their issues will be addressed more."
Saudi Arabia, which has the world's second-largest oil reserves, enforces constraints on women stemming from the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. Men and women are segregated in public, including at schools, restaurants and lines at fast-food takeouts. Women need permission from a male guardian to go to school or get married, and are barred from driving.
King Abdullah has taken some measures to expand women's rights in the kingdom since he came to power in 2005, in the face of resistance from the religious establishment. He has granted women the right to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections, opened the first co-educational university, and ordered that lingerie stores be staffed by women.
The 30 female members of the council include leading figures from education, health care and science, said Hatoon al- Fassi, a Saudi academic and women's historian, in a phone interview. One of them is Thuraya Obaid, a former executive director of the United Nations Population Fund.
"We have at last been recognized as co-citizens with men," said al-Fassi. She said Saudi women plan to meet with the new female council members so "we can talk to them about how best they can represent us and make the best of their presence there for the next four years."
Al-Howaider said Saudi women are seeking further changes, including ending the requirement for a male guardian and the driving ban, and she hopes they will be taken up by the council.
"I cannot understand how a woman can be a member of the council and yet cannot drive herself to work," she said.