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|Topic: Springtime in the desert|
Joined: 20 March 2004
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| Topic: Springtime in the desert
Posted: 25 August 2007 at 4:01pm
Springtime in the desert
Saudi women are still a long way from achieving equality but there are many hopeful signs.
The relative of a head of state recently declared: "We have to open the door for women." Without utilising their skills, she said, the country would never witness an economic boom. Such an announcement would be unremarkable - except the woman making the statement was Princess Adelah bint Abdullah bint Abdul Aziz, daughter of King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's ruler. Indeed, in the desert kingdom, where women are second class citizens who cannot vote, drive or own real estate, change is slowly coming for the female half of the population.
Needing to reinvigorate the kingdom's economy and provide jobs for Saudi Arabia's youthful and potentially restless population, reform-minded King Abdullah is trying to expand the female workforce. Women currently represent a mere 5% of Saudi economic life. When Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates was asked at the World Economic Forum whether the kingdom could become one of the world's top competitive economies by 2010, he replied: "If you're not fully utilising half the talent in the country, you're not going to get too close to the top 10."
A raft of new educational opportunities is paving the way towards an increased presence for women in economic life. At Dar al-Hikma all-girls school in Jeddah, women can now study law and engineering for the first time and the college dean, Dr Suhair Al-Qurashi, has expressed her wish to provide science and IT courses. The college, she says "from the beginning had in mind ... areas of specialisation that contribute to the job market". While women cannot practise law or work in engineering, these micro-steps can be taken as an indication that a transformation may yet happen.
Other initiatives have also surged ahead, such as the planned establishment of an all-female industrial zone employing roughly 10,000 women in more than 80 factories. In practical terms, the process of opening up businesses has been made easier for women, who can now obtain a commercial licence without needing a male agent to represent them. As Abdul Rahman ibn Ahmed al-Yami, a member of the advisory Shura council, explains, "this matter had been an obstacle ... limiting activities in the investment field".
Women have also been elected to Jeddah's Chamber of Commerce and Industry while a few Saudi women, such as Lubna al Olayan, who ranked in the Forbes Top 100 businesswomen in 2005, have been making international headlines. Crown Prince Sultan, who is among those slated to succeed King Abdullah, even announced plans to allocate one-third of government jobs to women.
Such steps may seem small, but set in the Saudi context they are transformative. True, they mainly affect those in the upper swathes of Saudi society, while women from across the social spectrum still face vast obstacles on their way to economic empowerment. Yet these openings may lead to real change.
The reforms have also emboldened Saudi women to extend their demands. Earlier this month, a group called the Supporters of Women petitioned the government to receive licensing and legal recognition. The group, composed of 21 members, is aiming at securing women's rights including "driving a car and ... the right of women to reveal their faces, and have flexible work hours".
Such demands, limited as they are, may be a case of too much, too fast, for Saudi Arabia's overwhelmingly conservative society. In the Middle East, the status of women has long been seen as the dividing point between authenticity and unwanted western influence. In Saudi Arabia, these concerns are grafted on to a highly tribal and extremely patriarchal society.
As a result, the very steps the kingdom needs to take to integrate women into economic life and create an environment tempting for foreign businesses are often the ones resisted most strenuously. Making the situation even trickier for King Abdullah and progressive princes is the overlap between those opposing reforms and the strict Wahhabi clergy who provide the House of Saud with the religious sanction necessary for its rule.
Characteristic of such hostility from the religious elite is the reaction of the Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, to the mixing of men and women - conventional practice in international business terms. In 2004, after witnessing mingling during the Jeddah Economic Forum, he issued a furious reprimand: "I am pained by such shameful behaviour ... allowing women to mix with men is the root of every evil and catastrophe."
Nor is resistance to women's economic empowerment limited to the clergy. Hardline factions within the royal family, such as the mercurial Prince Nayef, currently interior minister, remain powerful. When faced with demands to allow women to drive, he proclaimed: "I am astonished as to why this issue is being discussed." At times of political instability, such opposition may lead to King Abdullah abandoning some of his more ambitious plans for women's rights.
Regardless of the king's success in manoeuvering past these interest groups to expand the female presence in the business sector, one thing is clear: women's voices have stamped the public sphere. While political participation remains nonexistent, previously taboo topics, such as domestic violence or, indeed, women's right to vote, are beginning to be discussed even in the censored Saudi press. As Johara al-Angar, a member of the government-sanctioned Human Rights Commission says: "For the first time I feel really optimistic ... we're at a turning point."
"I am a slave. I eat as a slave eats and I sit as a slave sits.", Beloved, sallallahu alyhi wa-sallam.
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