The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Saudi Arabia creates a girls council to empower women — but where are the girls?

CAIRO — At first glance, it seemed as if Saudi Arabia was poised for a bit of change. With great fanfare, the governor of Qassim province announced the creation of a girls council — the first of its kind in the kingdom — intended to offer more opportunities for women and give them a voice.

It was an encouraging sign for a nation that regularly ranks near the bottom of global surveys on gender rights.

But there was one problem: When the Qassim Girls Council met over the weekend for the first time, pictures showed 13 men on stage — and not a single woman.

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The women were in another room, linked through video. In Saudi Arabia, unrelated men and women are not permitted to mix — a state policy that is strictly enforced.

Needless to say, the images of the all-male “girls council” have gone viral since the meeting took place Saturday.

It was not the reaction that Prince Faisal bin Mishaal bin Saud, the governor of Qassim province, had expected. In his speech to launch the council, he had expressed pride that his initiative could serve as an important step in breaking down gender barriers in the kingdom, noting that half of Saudi society is made up of women.

“In the Qassim region, we look at women as sisters to men, and we feel a responsibility to open up more and more opportunities that will serve the work of women and girls,” he said, according to the BBC.

His wife, Princess Abir bint Salman, is the head of the council — and almost certainly would have been in the photo, were it not for the kingdom’s rigid codes.

Most public buildings in Saudi Arabia, including banks, offices and universities, have separate entrances for women and men. Parks, beaches and public transportation are segregated in most parts of the nation. If unrelated men and women mix, it could lead to criminal charges against both parties, although women often face harsher punishment.

There have been previous efforts to bring change for women. In 2011, activists launched a campaign to encourage women to disregard official religious beliefs that effectively prohibit them from driving. Campaigners urged women to post images and videos of themselves behind the wheel on social media. But the campaign gained little traction.

A Saudi woman tweeted a photo of herself without a hijab. Police have arrested her.

More recently, there have been efforts to end Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system, which prevents women from engaging in work or other vital tasks without the permission of a male relative.

Saudi Arabia’s recent economic struggles could usher in greater freedoms for women. The decline in oil prices and large military expenditures for the Saudi-led military campaign in neighboring Yemen have brought calls for greater financial reforms and more freedoms for Saudi women.

Last year, the well-known Saudi investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, who is a member of the royal family, declared that the kingdom’s refusal to allow women to drive was draining billions of dollars from the sagging economy.

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A new plan has called for increasing Saudi women’s role in the economy, including boosting their participation in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent by 2030.

Last month, a woman was appointed as the chief executive of a major Saudi bank — a first in the country’s history. That came a few days after Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange appointed a woman as its chair.

Still, as the Qassim Girls Council revealed, the kingdom remains a realm controlled by men. At least in this generation — and maybe longer.