Saudi Arabia, the pinnacle of Islamic conservatism, a nation who’s society conforms to the strictest social rules, where heads and hands are plucked from the bodies of thieves and adulterers. Then apart from oil-wealthy sheikhs in gulf-esque attire, the biggest image presented in the media, is a land where women grace shopping malls draped head to toe in black, where a woman’s desire to divorce her husband is ten times more difficult than if it were the other way around, where women by law are not yet permitted to enjoy a spin behind the wheel, but ironically, one wheel is indeed spinning – the clogs of modernity.
Westernisation in the Arabian Peninsula has been well under way since the discovery of oil, a wave which Saudi Arabia has been riding ever since, moreover, Starbucks and McDonalds are as ubiquitous in Riyadh or Jeddah, as they are here in London. Saudi has been propelled into a new era. Modernity is happening. However, what does this mean for the women of the land?
Shemoukh El-Almaei, a university student from Riyadh claims “in women’s clubs, the sports facilities are amazing, you wouldn’t believe it, but people outside tend to think that Saudi women don’t do anything, they just stay at home waiting for their husbands or to get married. But this is not the case” (The New York Times: 2007). This serves as a basis for the facilities available to women now, but most importantly, an indication that women are becoming more active in society, women are getting education, representing 55% of students in universities, and more and more women are out pursuing careers, even if it means breaking away from previous societal traditions of getting married and becoming a housewife at a young age.
This ideology of women holding more social status has even been propelled forward by members of the Royal household, namely, Prince Waleed ibn Talal, who has set up a foundation in his name, an organization that has brought female empowerment to the forefront of policy making, from employment to education. And, most eloquently, all under a banner of Islamic principles, for example, he has rallied for the legality of women to be able to drive, but specifying the importance of hijab whilst doing so. He has also raised employment and the function of women within the various branches of his multi-million economic empire.
Moreover, this has led the creation of powerful, confident women in Saudi Arabia, namely, Mona Abu Sulayman, Executive manager of Strategic Studies and Research Initiatives of the Prince Waleed ibn Talal Foundation, has proven to a real bridge between western modernity and Islamic ideals, often writing for business columns as well as renowned for her motivational talks. Writing for arabbusiness.com explains that women need to be given the initiative to enter the work place, as more women further career prospects, then can we only measure the true success of the progression into the modern era in Saudi Arabia. She combines this view with traditional principles, that women should receive subsidies in the work place for raising children, for example, instead of starting as an intern or novice employee, they should be allowed back a position of the same calibre they had before becoming mothers. Of course, she explains, women gain a lot of experience raising children, multi-tasking and management seem to be two common features between motherhood and an internship, and this should not be neglected by prospective employers. An ideal that is still even being battled with in the West, is being so casually and confidently, expressed by a woman in old Saudi Arabia.
Women’s issues are coming further into the forefront on other levels, for example, the Jeddah Economic Forum regularly discusses women’s rights, and promulgates that more women should enter the work force, that employers need to exalt a quota explaining that this goes hand in hand with helping divorced single mothers, who need to support their families, and for the sake of modernity, simply just women that want to further their prospects outside the family unit. The Jeddah Economic Forum has meant big news to women in Saudi Arabia, buzzing with businesswomen, female journalists and doctors. Educated, modern, Saudi women.
Of course, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia has denounced the forum on an annual basis, and the forum’s name is a clear smokescreen to what is really discussed in its segregated halls, in abidance with Saudi law. Likewise, whilst amidst the optimism she elucidates, men like Prince ibn Talal and women like Abu Sulayman, have been branded as heretics for their aspirations for the ideals of feminine modernism. Sectors are always going to bubble up the brew of controversy of the emancipation of women in a society who’s privileges have been siphoned off the men. However, the arms to female prosperity and independence are at least beginning to be opened, prepared, more than ever, to embrace modernity.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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