There is no need for me to highlight the importance of Lama al Suleiman and Nashwa Taher’s win in the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce elections, the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia. The two female candidates succeeded in the first election to allow female candidates to stand. Does this victory represent progress or is it simply a minor event with no consequence to the electoral process or the participation of women?
While it may be a minor step, the election of female representatives might have a great impact if it continues and develops. It can serve as an example and familiarize society with the idea that the other half of society participate in running its affairs. However, this experience will not extend outside the Chamber of Commerce if it is confined to the upper classes of society such as businessmen, while the rest of society continues to regard women as housewives or teachers only.
The truth is, the status of women is rapidly changing throughout the region. For example, for the first time in Kuwait’s history, women are set to take part in election. Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed himself is encouraging women to participate as candidates and voters. For those who claim that the participation of women in public life is merely government propaganda need only examine the conduct of opposition parties. The Palestinian group Hamas has indicated it will include women on its electoral list and will assign them to what it calls, "safe seats"
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has also followed suit and fielded a female candidate in the current parliamentary elections.
After being forcibly absented from society, women are increasingly becoming active. Women were active participants, at a time when society was rural and agricultural, but retreated into the home with the emergence of modern systems of government.
The status of women in Saudi Arabia is more complex. As expectations on either side of the debate rose, the issue has become hotly disputed. Any progress achieved is now considered a concession rather than a correction. Women in Saudi Arabia worked in the business sector for a long time and only lost their role in the modern era, when most jobs came under the control of government. Officials decided women would make suitable teachers to the extent that schools are now crowded with female teachers whilst thousands of others remain unemployed.
This prompts one to ask what if the benefit from building numerous schools and universities for girls if it has been officially decided that their future lies in the kitchen? The government is spending billions of dollars educating women with no way of incorporating them into the job market.
When women shift from of working to support their families to demanding to participate in political life and decision-making, it appears as if we are moving quickly from the kitchen to the Chamber of Commerce or parliament. The two successful women candidates in Jeddah worked in the field of business and their success was therefore real and legitimate. It is true to say however, that the success of the two women also reflects a rapid shift in society itself. The elected Saudi women have worked in the business for some time and as such, their success was not haphazard or fake.