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

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From Zawya News, September 23, 2010

By Siraaj Wahab

AS Saudi Arabia celebrates its National Day today, there is a significant section of the population that has reasons to cheer more than others. Not that the women of Saudi Arabia were marginalized in the past, but in recent times they have been given the honor, credit and the space that they richly deserve. Saudi society has been a little more welcoming of their pursuits and initiatives.

Government institutions have grown more responsive to their needs, and the media have become more vocal, both in reporting their successes and failures. The leadership at the top provided the incentive by appointing a woman as minister. The private sector hasn’t been far behind — opening the doors of their establishments to these women who have achievements that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.

Not a day goes by where you don’t see talented Saudi women making important contributions in almost all fields of endeavor. Their faces, beaming with pride, adorn the pages and covers of prestigious publications. Foreign journalists visiting the Kingdom, with preconceived notions about Saudi women, have not hidden their appreciation and admiration of Saudi women after meeting them in person. Many have described them as second to none. And yes, they are second to none.

To the Western world all these changes may sound insignificant, but for those who have been watching the Kingdom’s development over the last few years these are no proverbial mirages in the desert. To those in the West, the barometer for women’s emancipation is the ability to drive on Saudi roads. However, that is not the most pressing issue for Saudi women. There are other more important things, and they have learned to work within the system to get things done their way. For a Western observer the image of a Saudi woman is that of an abaya-clad prisoner who can do nothing on her own and is completely subservient to the whims of her male masters. That is certainly not the case, and newspapers here and abroad and social networking sites such as Facebook are proof that Saudi women are making slow yet continuous progress.

Only last month, the newspapers were filled with the success of equestrienne Dalma Rushdi Malhas who rode her way to fame with a medal-winning performance at the recent Singapore Youth Olympics.

Among the first people to reach flood-hit Pakistan with relief was Muna Abu-Sulayman. She was among those coordinating the massive relief efforts undertaken by Kingdom Holding Co. chairman Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

Hayat Sindi is breaking new grounds in the field of science; Huda Ghosun and Hiba Dialdin of Saudi Aramco have assumed key leadership positions; Asya Al-Ashaikh has given a new and positive direction to the concept of corporate social responsibility. Nora Alturki and Fatin Bundagji are engaged in pioneering research on the needs and aspirations of Saudi businesswomen; Samia El-Edrissi has launched her own business; Amina Al-Jassim’s couture has become the cynosure of all eyes in the world of fashion; Lina Almaeena has created quite a buzz with her passion for bringing women into the world of sports; Hatoon Al-Fassi, the historian, and Samar Fatany, the columnist and radio commentator, have become the most-quoted people for their insightful comments; Lama Sulaiman, Hana Al-Zuhair and Sameera Al-Suwaigh are part of key decision-making within the Kingdom’s chambers of commerce. The list is endless, and it only goes to prove that they are taking the lead and conquering new territories.

All this would not have been possible without the critical push from Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah. He brought them into the mainstream. He lent them a patient ear and understood the challenges they faced. Once the direction from the top was clear, there were other segments of society which saw the need to engage and harness this great potential.

“It is important for us to remember that the Saudi girl has been struggling for years to redefine her role in society — not only in the workplace and at school but, most important of all, in our collective consciousness and our collective perceptions of what she is and what paths are open to her and what paths should be open to her,” said a prominent Saudi journalist. “What these women sought and what they wanted was not ‘liberation’ in the Western sense of the word. They were seeking — and they attained — the right to do and be what they wanted to do and be; they wanted the same doors open to them as were open to their brothers and other Saudi men.”

There is an interesting joke that all of us hear during freewheeling conversations here in Saudi Arabia. For the first 25 years of their life, a Saudi man is controlled by his mother; the next 25 years he is firmly in the grip of his wife. And then he becomes harmless! That may be a joke, but Saudi women have come a long way and so widespread with their success that they will become common and no longer merit front-page treatment.

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