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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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From Arab News

September 19, 2010

DAMMAM: Several Saudi businesswomen and investors have urged the minister of education to order an investigation into “biased and disgraceful” conditions for women wanting to invest in the girls education sector.

They have called on Prince Faisal bin Abdullah to take steps to unify Education Ministry rules and regulations for both male and female investors and put an end to the so-called “segregation.”

They wanted an end to partisan attitudes at a time when Saudi society was opening up and businesswomen were coming forward to invest in the girls education sector.

A number of legal experts also pointed out that certain ministry conditions that allegedly contravene the Kingdom’s labor law should be changed, Al-Watan daily said in a recent report.

Amal Khaled, a woman investor, said businesswomen were required to fulfill certain specific conditions set by the ministry whenever they want to obtain permission to establish a private school or institute.

“Even though a woman might fulfill the normal requirements in terms of academic qualifications and financial capabilities to open and run a private school, she sees the ministry’s conditions as a major obstacle that shatters her dreams,” she said.

“The main impediment is that she needs to obtain a clearance certificate from her guardian or husband before presenting an application for a license to the ministry.”

Reem Al-Ajab, another woman investor in the education sector, pointed out that it took her eight months to obtain a license from the ministry to open a private school.

“I have been fed up with the bureaucratic procedures to secure a license that normally takes a few weeks to obtain for men,” she said.

I had to produce a certificate about the job of my husband, testimony from two witnesses about my husband’s job, his consent to start the venture, a recommendation letter from the mosque imam, and so forth.”

She added that extra procedures such as correspondence and contact between the ministry and the Education Department in the Eastern Province had resulted in delaying the project by another two months.

The experience of Fahd Al-Harbi, an investor in the private education sector, demonstrates that male investors also face similar bureaucratic problems.

“I had to face a number of queries from the Education Department in the Eastern Province when I approached it to secure a license to open a language institute and a computer center,” he said.

“Most of these questions were illogical and incomprehensible. The department had instructed me that the institute should be established in a locality away from residential areas, and that there should be security guards.”

He suggested that there should be a single department to supervise investment projects in both the boys and girls education sectors.

“At present, investors have to fulfill different conditions and requirements set separately by the boys and girls departments. This results in a waste of both time and resources for aspiring investors,” he said, noting that there were 11 conditions for women investors and only five for men.

According to Al-Harbi, the procedures to obtain a license to start a project in the education sector takes nearly a year to complete and this results in huge losses of money and unnecessary effort as far as investors are concerned.

Ibrahim Al-Salem, chairman of the private education committee at the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, claimed that the ministry’s conditions have become a major hurdle that stand in the way of fulfilling even the goals set by the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Economy and Planning.

“The ministries want at least 25 percent of investments in the education sector to be from the private sector. However, the current level is only nine percent,” he said, adding that there were no such conditions to open a government school.

Legal consultant Mais Abdullah said the requirement of obtaining permission from a husband or guardian to establish a venture contravened the Kingdom’s labor law provisions.

“This is also not legally binding. This condition is part of our traditions and customs,” he said, adding that the consent of guardians was required only in the case of minors under the age of 21.

Noted lawyer Ibrahim Al-Bahri also pointed out that there is no provision in the amended labor law requiring the permission of a husband before a woman can set up a business venture.

Reacting to the criticism, Haya Al-Samhari, director general of private and foreign education at the Ministry of Education, clarified that the rules and regulations that govern private schools in the Kingdom do not make any difference to the conditions for male and female investors.

“The regulations for obtaining license for schools are the same for both male and female investors. The only difference is that women must have secured a clearance certificate from her husband or guardian. This is part of measures to ensure the proper functioning of the educational establishment,” she said, adding that such regulations were in place for women investors in other sectors as well.

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