Saudi reform push empowering women

From top posts in government and finance to shop attendants and cashiers, women are genuinely breaking new ground in kingdom

Manama: Of late, Saudi women have had good reason to be optimistic, with a series of research studies highlighting the progress they have made in the past year or two.

What seemed foolishly bold dreams a few months ago is now a sweet reality for millions of Saudi women as they begin to make inroads, breaking into fields and professions that were considered men’s bastions, and asserting their presence.

They are so determined that they want the world to know they will not be stopped by cynics or doubters. The issue came to the fore when

Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud, the President of the Saudi Federation for Community Sports, used an international forum to lash out at those who were cynical about the recent changes in the status of women in in the kingdom.

“There is a determination not to allow us to create a new narrative. My question is: why? You ask us to change, and then when we exhibit change, you come at us with cynicism,” she said at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January.

“We’re not doing gender equality because the West wants it, or because it will target Human Rights Watch and get them off our backs, or because Amnesty International is going to say ‘Great, good job’ . We’re doing it because it is right.”

In recent months, a string of women have been appointed to high-profile posts in the kingdom.

In February, Tamader Al Rammah became Saudi Arabia’s first Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Development, months after becoming the kingdom’s second woman to be appointed ministry undersecretary.

Al Rammah, who was Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission Representative in 2016, is expected to do well in her new posting, if her past academic achievements are anything to go by (she holds a Ph.D. in Radiology and Medical Engineering from Manchester University).

In the financial sector, Sarah Al Suhaimi in 2017 made history by becoming the first woman to chair Tadawul, Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange, the largest bourse in the Middle East by far.

It was a recognition of the talent of the Harvard Business School graduate who used to be the CEO and Board Director of NCB Capital, the investment arm of the National Commercial Bank, the largest bank in Saudi Arabia. During her first four years leading NCB Capital, assets under management more than doubled and market share grew in brokerage and corporate finance.

Two other such success stories in the finance sector are those of Latifa Al Sabhan, who was appointed Arab National Bank’s chief financial officer, and Reem Nashar, who became the first female CEO of a Saudi bank, Samba.

Saudi women have also made progress in the diplomatic field. In September, Fatima Baeshen became the Saudi embassy’s spokesperson in Washington, and Nashwa Taher was appointed Saudi Arabia’s honourary consul to Holland. For Muna Abu Sulaiman, who in 2007 became the first woman from Saudi Arabia to be appointed by the United Nations Development Programme as a goodwill ambassador, the main reference point is Khadija, the wife of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).

“That women can be seen to have equal abilities as men, and have government support, is essential. This gives women the power to dream that they can reach their potential, be treated with the dignity allocated to all human beings, and be trusted to choose paths that help them lead a dignified life in whatever form they want. The Prophet’s wife, Sayditna Khadija, is an example of a working, powerful and ethical woman who had the tools to make the right decisions in her life. Saudi Arabia is admirably trying to raise a generation of Khadijas.”

“Today, the world can see what we have always held as a fact in Saudi Arabia,” Sarah, a Saudi who owns a business in Bahrain, told Gulf News. “Despite all the misconceptions, Saudi women can hold leadership positions competently and can assert themselves in areas that had been the realm of men for a long time. The latest appointments prove the kingdom is changing and that women’s role is being increasingly recognised. I am glad people living outside Saudi Arabia can now see the [beginning of the] end of male-domination in governmental entities and how women are now holding positions that had been held exclusively for men since the establishment of the state. The old stereotypes have no raison d’etre today.”

Many young women are empowering themselves economically by taking up jobs in shops and malls.

The sight of Saudi women working as cashiers or in cafeterias is becoming so familiar that it no longer attracts attention.

“I have been working in a cafeteria for two months and I deal mainly with families who are seemingly more comfortable with women,” Al Jawhara told a Saudi daily. “I was encouraged by my family to take the job and I am glad I did. I earn around SR4,000 for eight hours of work that are totally hassle-free. I am saving money and gaining enough experience to launch my own business later.”

Ruwa, who could not secure a government job after graduating from university, said she applied to become a saleswoman.

“It is much better than staying idle at home and waiting,” she said. “I am making slightly less than SR4,000 a month and I hope to get bonuses that will help me pay for my transportation. I am glad I am financially independent. It means a lot to me.”

Rafeeda said being able to work helped her socialise, while also improving her living conditions.

“It is obvious that Saudi women can work without encountering serious problems,” she said.

“I had some concerns in the beginning as I often heard that social problems would result from women taking up public positions, but that is not true,” said the high school graduate.

While old mindsets about the idea of women working still persist, most Saudi women are finding new role models to inspire them.

Alongside the breakthrough appointments, Saudi Arabia is increasingly publicly showering recognition on its female citizens locally and internationally.

In March, the country celebrated its National Women’s Day, in conjunction with International Women’s Day; 11 Saudi women were honoured for their leadership roles and innovation.

The celebration by Princess Noura Bint Mohammad Al Saud, wife of Riyadh’s Emir, included Princess Al Bandari Bint Abdul Rahman Faisal for community work, Dr. Hoda Bint Mohammad Al Ameel, VP at Princess Nourah Bint Abdul Rahman University, for education, Dr. Thuraya Ebrahim Al Arid for culture, Dr. Fatima Ameen Shaker for journalism, Dr. Malha Abdullah Morih Mazhar for theatre, Dr. Lamia Abdul Mohsen Al Ebrahim for medicine, public figure Lojain Ahmad Omran for media, Samia Abdul Rahman Al Mubarak for business, Mai Mohammad Al Hoshan for public administration, Susan Baakil for photography, Dr. Manal Abdul Kareem Al Rowaished for fine arts, Sarah Attar for sports and Samia Al Fayez Al Qulaish for public relations.


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