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In first-ever, female academic chairs Saudi Shura Council meeting

Saudi academic Dr Hanan Al-Ahmadi made history as the first Saudi woman to chair a Shura Council session

The Shura Council of Saudi Arabia, a consultative body that has no-executive power within the absolute monarchy, made its own little history today by allowing a woman to chair a virtual session of the 150 member committee.

Dr Hanan Al-Ahmadi, who was appointed as the new Assistant Speaker of the kingdom's consultative body following a royal decree back in October, led the session in the absence of council President Sheikh Abdullah Al Sheikh and Vice President Dr Mishaal Al Sulami.

Al-Ahmadi, a graduate from King Saud University and the University of Pittsburgh, is an academic who specialises in economics and health management. She was one of the first women to be appointed to the Shura Council seven years ago.

Saudis have received the news as an example of another milestone in the kingdom's drive to modernisation. "When our King appointed Dr Hanan in a top position never held by a woman before, it felt empowering and has many young girls dreaming," Shahd Alghamdi, a law student in Riyadh is reported saying in the National.

"Now that we know we can achieve milestones, we want to pursue them and work harder to make our families and country proud," Alghamdi added.

READ: Concerns in US after two Saudi activists referred to terrorism court

Dr Faisal Al Fadel, a member of the Shura Council, said that Al-Ahmadi chairing the session was a historic event and that it was part of the kingdom's Vision 2030 aspiration which includes empowering women and investing in their capabilities.

With global outrage over Saudi Arabia's treatment of female activists, critics of the kingdom are likely to view Al-Ahmadi's rise within the Shura Council as a case of one step forward and two steps back.

Dozens of female activists have been arrested since May 2018, weeks before Saudi Arabia lifted a decades-old ban on female drivers. Many went on a hunger strike in October for several weeks to protest against their prison conditions. A report released last month alleged that that jailed female activists were being tortured and forced to carry out "sex acts" while in detention.

Of the dozens that have been jailed, the plight of Loujain Al-Hathloul has attracted global attention. The latest to speak on her behalf was the US Department of State which expressed concerns over her case being referred to the kingdom's terrorism court.

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