2004 was certainly the year for women in Saudi Arabia. The beginning of the year witnessed the designation of the “Second National Dialogue” for women’s issues. The same year was concluded with extensive debate on the rights and eligibility of women to participate in public elections. The initiative taken by some women of Saudi society who have presented themselves as candidates for the municipal elections from various areas added to the intensity of the debate, the most prominent of whom are: Faten Bandaqji, Fatmah Alkhereiji, Najat Al Shafei, Shadiah Al Bayat, Nadia Bakharji, Hoda Al Geresi and Al Jawhra Omar. However, their application was put off until the next elections. This was the end of the story so what about the beginning? The chairwoman of the Committee to Empower Women in Khadija Bint Khwailid Center affiliated to the Commercial-Industrial chamber in Jeddah, Faten Bandaqji says “the decision to participate as a female candidate came as a natural consequence to the absence of any legal preclusions and because of the desire to make use of the municipal council which is a vital civil institution that aims at improving individual lives.” Faten goes on to add, "We have no problem with waiting until the next elections because we understand that there were no means to aid women like voting centers or a system that facilitates voting. However, we all hope that the government will allocate a portion of the seats for women.”
On the contrary, in relation to other elections that are no less important for some, women were recently allowed to participate in the elections of commerce chambers. It is also worthy of mention that lubna Al-Olayan the first Saudi woman to have been appointed as member of the board of directors of the Saudi Hollandi Bank. This economic participation is understandable if we remember the statistics that say no less than 30% Saudi women own capital despite the absence of credible statistics in this field. This absence has actually led the Saudi Cabinet to recommend the preparation of a study on “Women’s Working Force in the Market” that is expected to last for about a year.
The enrollment of girls in disciplined official schools in Saudi Arabia started in the 60’s and in fact, their enrollment ever since has been on the rise. Today, 58% of students in the kingdom are females. However, the employment of women is still restricted to the fields of education, health care and social services. Saudi Arabia still lacks any politically oriented women’s associations or organizations. However, every now and then the initiative arises whether from women or the government. The Saudis are no longer secretive about the 1991 incident when Saudi women academicians holding international driving licenses drove their vehicles on the roads of the capital Riyadh, until they were detained and the situation was settled. Today this incident and the issues that it raised are still debated and memories are retrieved in local newspapers. On the government’s part, its initiative was represented in the second national dialogue, which was designated for women’s issues. This round of dialogue was full of dramatic events between sheikh Dr. Mohamed Al ‘Erefi and academician Dr. Wafaa’ Al Rashid who wept after a debate between the two. The story is well known in local Saudi society.
The Saudi woman writer Wajeha Al-Huwaider says that “So far, the Saudi woman is not serious about her future perspective. Personally, I think that Saudi women are the most negative among women in the Gulf, even in relation to the issue of opposition statements, which have become very common lately; her contributions are still very little. She still lives in luxury waiting for what others may accomplish for her.” In Saudi today every thing related to women obtains its appropriate share of media attention, one that could not be downplayed. We witnessed the one-year anniversary a few weeks ago of the establishment of “Al-Ikhbariyah” news channel by the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Culture and Information, which has surprised viewers by putting forward women as reporters, broadcasters and correspondents who do not spare efforts to cover events of terrorism that the country is suffering from. This step had a range of responses, mainly hesitant social acceptance; especially that terrorism is an inevitably male-oriented action.
Faten Bandqaji describes the social response as “social awareness that needs stimulating programs that may make people understand the role of women.” In fact the step is not entirely new. The first appearance of women on national TV dates back to 1977 when a Saudi woman called Shu’aa Al Rashed appeared as a news broadcasters on the second official Saudi channel (the English channel). It is important that Saudi, which expects many steps to be taken regarding women’s rights, has signed the U.N “Agreement to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women” in 2000, which similar to Kuwait preserves reservations against all clauses that contradict Islamic Law. Al-Huwaider, sees that “the major demand of Saudi Women should be the establishment of a Ministry of Women”s Affairs that would mobilize women and enhance collective feelings towards one another and raise their awareness of their rights. Also, it should change the inferior perception that women have of themselves. We also need a Personal Status Code and to remove guardianship over women. In fact, it seems that the project of the Saudi Woman needs a societal foundation composed of women themselves.”