Dammam, Asharq Al-Awsat- The establishment of a Ministry of Women’s Affairs’ in the Kingdom could soon be a reality, Asharq al Awsat can reveal.
Sources revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that this proposal has been brought to the attention of higher authorities lately, after it was recommended in a study commissioned by the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce. The proposal is expected to initiate a qualitative shift for Saudi women, and will perhaps mark a turning point between the period before the Ministry, and the future.
The proposal was revealed by Dr Basmah Umayr, the Executive Director of Al-Sayyidah Khadijah Bint Khuwaylid Center in the Jeddah Chamber, without giving a timeframe for its implementation. She said that the Women’s Ministry would contribute to “the transportation of women to [the level] of decision-making”. When asked about the problem of overlapping jurisdiction with other groups and ministries involved in providing services for women, she denied that this would be the case. “There will be joint objectives, with each group contributing according to its specialty,” she said.
Umayr said there were predominantly two contrasting opinions regarding the proposed ministry. One view opposes the proposal, on the grounds that it would in fact differentiate women from the rest of society. The other view supports the proposal, believing that the ministry would emphasize that women are now able to achieve the positions they previously hoped for. “Globally, we found upon studying the situation that many developed countries still reserve a ministry for women,” she said. “Women’s affairs are limitless, and there are many issues related to them.”
Regarding female reaction regarding the proposed ministry, Umayr said that there had been an overwhelming response. She attributes this to the belief that many decisions require a body specializing in women’s affairs. “Since 2007 we have been demanding that women should become cabinet ministers, and not only with regards to women’s affairs, for they can assume office in other departments as well,” she said.
The study justified the need to create a ministry for women’s affairs by arguing that it would “oversee the implementation of relevant Cabinet decisions, and draft a national strategy to ensure the effective presence of women in the economic domain”. According to the study, “at the present time, regulations in place to support businesswomen are being amended, but they are not always implemented at administrative levels, due to resistance and limited follow-up”.
The study states that “a ministry for women’s affairs would ensure such implementation, define objectives, and provide advice in areas that require improvement. It may also make sure that the laws enacted by other ministries take into consideration the needs of women and men alike. Similar ministries have been established for instance in France and Malaysia”.
In a phone interview conducted by Asharq Al-Awsat, legal adviser Asma al-Ghanim said that she “strongly” supported the proposal. She had presented a similar argument at the First Women’s Development Conference, which was held at the Center of Princess Jawahir Bint Naif for the Research and Development of Women, in the town of Al-Khobar last November. During the conference, she called for the establishment of an independent body called ‘The Women’s Organization’, which would be affiliated to the Cabinet, and headed by a woman with the rank of minister.
It is worth noting that a ministry specifically for women’s affairs has been introduced in other countries, such as Palestine, Turkey, Italy and others. But in these countries, the ministry has often been given a different name, such as the Ministry of Gender, Ministry of Family Affairs, or Ministry of Women’s Affairs and so on. Most women’s affairs ministries seek to strengthen the capabilities of women, and empower them economically, socially, and culturally through various programs. They also work in coordination with many groups in society’s relevant governmental, civil, and academic sectors to determine the principal areas for improving conditions for women. The primary agenda of these ministries is to focus on combating unemployment among women, strengthening female political participation and female representation in decision-making domains, combating violence against women, and ensuring that the legal and legislative environment is female-friendly.
The study, entitled “Businesswomen in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”, also called for “the appointment of women as members in the Saudi Shura [consultative] Council, to ensure that the interests of Saudi businesswomen and women in general, are represented”. Dr Nihad al-Jishi, an adviser for the Shura Council, suggested that this proposal might materialize in the near future, having taken part in the Second Women’s Conference, held in the city of Qutayf at the beginning of last July.
In addition to this, there is also a recommendation to “remove restrictions imposed on women, whereby it is necessary to appoint men as directors of projects that serve both sexes”. There is also a demand to “ease restrictions on women commuting on public transport, as well as women’s driving, and international travel”. Finally, there is a further recommendation to “launch a general national campaign to bolster economic participation by women and support the implementation of decisions issued by the cabinet [relating to women’s affairs]”.
The Executive Director of the Al-Sayyidah Khadijah Bint Khuwaylid Center said that “a ministry for women is an important recommendation, but the other recommendations [cited in the study] are also important for supporting women”. She disclosed that preparations are currently being made to print this study as a book, and to distribute it to all Saudi cabinet ministries. Asked when this would be done, she said it would probably be ready in the following month, but certainly before the end of 2010.
It is noteworthy that the number of businesses registered to female owners in Saudi Arabia is amongst the highest in the Middle East and North Africa. An estimated 72.6 percent of registered businesses owned by women in Saudi Arabia are conducted outside the household, and 92 percent of them have salaried employees. But Saudi businesswomen, unlike their counterparts in the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates) do not engage in international trade activities. This is despite the fact that 21.3 percent of Saudi businesswomen are investors either in import or export activities, or both, according to the results of the study.
In terms of education, the results show that the educational levels of Saudi businesswomen are above average, compared to the entire Saudi workforce. 58 percent of these businesswomen hold university degrees, and a large number of them pursued their university education abroad after completing high school in Saudi Arabia. In comparison, only 21.3 percent of the total Saudi workforce are university educated, according to 2004 statistics by the Ministry of Economy and Planning.