Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat – On his first official tour of Asia since ascending the throne, King Abdullah visited China and India in January 2006, accompanied by a delegation of both Saudi men and women. This incredible achievement heralded a new era for Saudi women and signaled the King’s equal regard for all his citizens.
Faten Bandaqji, one of six Saudi women who accompanied King Abdullah on his visit to India , said women played an important role. “This was an amazing chance for women to play a part in increasing communication between the two countries and peoples, by visiting a number of Indian institutions and universities.”
Bandaqji was famously photographed next to the Saudi monarch. “It was more than a photograph”, she said. “It re-affirmed King Abdullah’s policy of giving Saudi women their right to participate effectively in Saudi society.” Unfortunately, she added, “The prevailing culture was one of the biggest obstacles facing Saudi women.”
However, since King Abdullah ascended the throne last year, women in Saudi Arabia have made significant progress. “King Abdullah gave us the change to reform our status in society.”
The above photograph, celebrated in all Saudi newspapers, was preceded by a meeting between King Abdullah a delegation of women teachers who sought to pledge allegiance to their monarch. On another occasion, King Abdullah met with a group of women writers and intellectuals representing all segments of Saudi society.
“This meeting came to strengthen King Abdullah’s vision in which he recognizes the role played by Saudi female intellectuals, writers and media personalities, irrespective of our ideological beliefs. This legitimizes our work and effective role in Saudi society,” said Siham al Qahtani, a Saudi writer and critic who attended the meeting. “Women require a political decision to overcome the challenges ahead,” she said.
In the eyes of many, the first step to improve the status of women in Saudi society was their participation in the elections of the Chambers of Commerce and Industry across the Kingdom, starting in Jeddah, both as voters and candidates. Two women were elected and two others were appointed to the board by the Ministry of Commerce.
Alfat Qabbani, one of the successful women candidates, predicted the election would empower women and increase their contribution in the private sector, after years of being marginalized. Under the reign of King Abdullah, the percentage of women in the Saudi workforce has reached 19%, of which 38% work in the private sector. Women have also invested 32 billion riyals in the service and commerce sectors and 27 billion riyals in the stock market and bonds.
“Many women are now independently managing their investment portfolios and are luring foreign investments from Saudi women abroad to fund successful local projects, “said Qabbani.
However, Noura Al Youssef, an advisor at the Ministry of Petroleum, sounded more cautious. “Women still need support in order to attain senior roles across government departments.”
A founding member of the Saudi Human Rights Association, Al Youssef said that the attention given to the status of women, under King Abdullah, was a reflection of his concern for all his subjects. “King Abdullah incorporated women into the National Dialogue and the Saudi Human Rights Association.”
In the last year, a women’s department was inaugurated in the Law Faculty at King Saud University in Riyadh and, for the first time in the history of the Kingdom, women were allowed to enroll in media studies courses. Plans are underway to establish a technical college for women, enabling them to seek work in previously out of bound professions.”
As for women writers and intellectuals, who remained marginalized and unable to effectively participate in Saudi cultural institutions, their status has also improved. Women cultural committees have been formed in several institutes across the Kingdom and women only halls have been inaugurated in several clubs.
“This initiative was built on the trust in women’s abilities and their intellectual capabilities, even if many women sought to become equal to businesswomen and be appointed to the board of these institutions,” Dr. Fatma Elias, head of the women’s committee in the Literary and Cultural Club in Jeddah said.
“The mere fact that women-only halls have been inaugurated, a longstanding demand of women intellectuals, is an important step.”
Other steps are needed for the status of women in Saudi Arabia to continue to improve. “The Ministry of Education has promised women intellectuals they will be able to take part in future elections of literary clubs and will be permitted to stand for election, as their male counterparts do,” Elias added.
Described by many Saudi women as “a pleasant surprise”, six women were appointed as part-time advisors to the Shura Council (Consultative Council) in July. Despite the controversy that followed the move, everyone welcomed it as an effective step enabling women, for the first time, to take part in the political process. “This is an important move by King Abdullah and one of a series of steps to improve its status in Saudi society and enable it to gradually reach decision-making positions,” Al Youssef, one of the six advisors, said.
King Abdullah’s vision for gradual reform has been described by many as “wise and in keeping with the values of Saudi society.” In a previous interview with Asharq al Awsat, Princess Adila bint Abdullah said, “Changing a society’s ideas comes gradually. This doesn’t mean it should be slow. We have to remember we are dealing with people and not machines.”
The continuing empowerment of Saudi women is a confirmation of King Abdullah’s longstanding vision. Indeed, in 1999, he said, “Saudi women are citizens who have rights, obligations and responsibility… When we speak of the comprehensive development that our country is witnessing in all fields, we cannot ignore the role of women or its responsibility for this development.”