Saudi society as a whole is in a state of effective movement and activity that is attracting the attention of foreign and local observers. The issue of women’s rights is part of this activity and “natural” interaction [taking place within Saudi society]. This is a raw fact that has nothing to do with our assessment of the situation, or whether or not we admire such activity and development. Generations of Saudi girls have been educated since the procession of formal education began back in 1960 following a royal decree that was issued by King Saud granting girls the right to education.
The decision was protested at that time by certain currents, but the march went on and Saudi girls took part in formal education. Some of them were even sent to study abroad and within a few years Saudi Arabia had its own female doctors, bankers, engineers and businesswomen.
Every stage of personal “development” was met with opposing apprehensive voices repeating the same old arguments and expressing the same old fears. But the ship of women’s rights would, in most cases, sail through those obstacles, leaving those fears to dwindle or recoil in some distant corner until a new stage approaches.
Today, in the midst of all the grand transformations that have taken place within the large Saudi society since the revolutionary rise of the internet and satellite television stations, and considering the large numbers of young Saudi men and women in comparison to the overall Saudi population, and in light of the inability of the public sector to incorporate women in public and private sector jobs, or let us say the limitation of such incorporation due to its same old fears and problems related to the structure of the labour market in general, which have affected both young men and women equally, in light of all of this, we have come to face a serious issue concerning women, one that stands out on its own and is backed with facts and figures.
There is no denying that women constitute around 50 percent of the overall Saudi population. They make up about 8.2 million of 16.5 Saudi nationals whilst the total number of people living in Saudi Arabia amounts to 22.7 million.
Despite the aforementioned figures, the number of employed Saudi women is estimated at 10.25 percent of the overall workforce according to the UN development program report on women and development goals in the third millennium.
We cannot deny the fact that female university graduates need work and a source of income, not to mention their need to gain the moral satisfaction that comes with employment. Otherwise, there would be no point in arduous study, going and coming from university and paying university fees if it would only lead to young women staying at home for fighting over jobs leftover for women. Why then give them an education in the first place?
This is an honest question which has nothing to do with all the ongoing fierce controversy. There is a real crisis with which employers in the private sector and experts on labour market requirements and economic and social development in Saudi Arabia are very familiar.
At the end of the day, Saudi society is a community of people subject to the laws and norms of natural development that apply to all societies. Therefore, just a few years ago, it was perfectly natural for us to witness a strong return of women to society, very much against the will of those who want to marginalise them in terms of discussion and presence.
Recently, the local media brought to the fore Saudi women who excelled in the field of scientific research and in their field of expertise and were honoured by their universities and places of work in the West, such as Professor Ghada al Mutairi and Professor Hayat Sindi. Saudi women have featured on the cover of the US’s Time Magazine, one of the most important magazines on the media market. The magazine devoted its main segment to Saudi women.
It would be a great injustice to Saudi women if people thought that their cause is being stirred by foreign influence rather than by the culture and concerns of the country itself. This is not the case.
The procession of Saudi women and the transformation of women in society began a long time ago and have been deep rooted in the national conscience ever since the rise of the modern state brought about by the founder King Abdul Aziz, may God rest his soul.
In Saudi Arabia, the issue of women’s rights began very early on. The author Ahmed al Subaei wrote an article entitled ‘Women’s Literature in the Hijaz’ in the Sawt al Hijaz [Voice of Hijaz] newspaper on May 21, 1934, in reference to a female writer who believed that it would be wise to conceal her name as a very knowledgeable and cultured woman. Al Subaei said that this learned woman, after reading so many books, said to herself: “I really don’t know about my fellow brothers and sisters. Would they still call me a deviant and brand me unorthodox even though I believe that wearing the veil is a religious duty but that women should be educated?”
In the same issue, al Subaei writes in response to Sawt al Hijaz’s Editor-In-Chief Mohammed Ali Reda who opposed opening schools for girls on the pretext that a woman’s place is in the home. Al Subaei contends that the educating of girls is not a pretext for corrupting them. In 1936, al Subaei published a book called ‘Wahi al Sahra’ [Inspiration of the Desert] which contained a number of articles including one entitled ‘Our Need to Educate Girls.’
Earlier than that, in 1933 to be precise, Mohammed Rassem wrote an article in Sawt al Hijaz supporting and endorsing women’s rights to education. He ends it by saying, “A life of knowledge and a life of ignorance are poles apart.”
In Akhbar al Zahran newspaper, which used to come out of east Saudi Arabia, Saudi writer Abdul Karim al Juhaiman wrote an article in 1955 entitled ‘Our Other Half.’ Back then, he published it under the alias of “al Bassir.” Years later, he re-published the article using his real name. In it he says, “We can still see many of our fellow citizens dreading the idea of educating girls and who go to extremes that go beyond the wild imagination rather than actual reality so they leave their daughters to become parrots.” Saad al Bawardi wrote something similar in the sixth issue of his magazine Al Ashaa [Rays] published in 1956.
In the heart of Saudi Arabia, strong voices were battling for women’s rights to education. These voices were supported with the signatures of a group of girls and women that they published in Al Qassim newspaper, the archives of which contain a large record of the battle for the right to education. Those female students ran their article in the column of ‘Hawa Tatakalam’ [Eve Speaks] in the 21st issue of the newspaper back in 1960. They supported King Saud’s policy for women’s education which was met with opposition from the conservatives. Furthermore, those female students called the Saudi monarch “the king of democracy.” In the 26th issue of Al Qassim newspaper published in 1960, an article entitled ‘Women’s Education’ contained the following excerpt: “The idea of women’s education, which has always been advocated by intellectuals and examined by researchers, has been realised. The illusions and fears that got in the way of educating the nation have all melted away.”
Another article was published in the 107th issue of Al Qassim newspaper in 1962 by a woman poet and writer called Sara Abu Humaid entitled ‘Don’t Deny Your Daughters an Education.’
The battle for educating women initially waged by King Saud then King Faisal with strength and determination was a decisive one. Paradoxically, many of those who were vehemently against the idea of women’s education had their own daughters enrolled in schools later on. Both Saudi women and men had a say in this battle.
The issue of women’s education was a major issue in the past and it caused a great deal of controversy. But the state decided to proceed on this journey. The endorsement of the political leadership made all the difference for Saudi women and enabled them to win their battle. Thanks to the efforts of faithful Saudi citizens, men and women alike, the Kingdom has managed to introduce generations of educated women full of energy and eager to work. Men like King Saud, King Faisal, King Khalid, and King Fahd were all keen to give the people of Saudi Arabia a good education. The same goes for women like the wife of King Faisal, Princess Effat, who was known as the pioneer of women’s education in Saudi Arabia.
What is happening now in the era of King Abdullah in terms of development and change is an extension of the earlier development efforts and progress that is in line with natural development. This does not contradict Islam as some people are trying to make us believe. Change and development are not to be dreaded or feared, unlike what these protesting campaigns are claiming.
In this context, the recent statement made by the head of the Supreme Judiciary Council in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Saleh Bin Humaid, in response to a question on the plan to develop the judiciary system, was eye catching. He pointed out that development does not mean demolishing previous achievements, but rather looking forward to a better future. He added that changes require change in order to keep abreast of things.
This is true and those who do not develop their mechanisms are actually harming themselves and their society. No culture emerges or lasts without an embracing human community. No human community could make up a force unless it is a capable community. Those who do not possess the courage to transform and develop are bound to extinction. This is the way of the world.
From this we conclude that Saudi society is now trying to place itself in the right position, between the need to change and keep abreast of things on the one hand, and the need to maintain its proud cultural identity on the other.