Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Saudi Women: Changing Reality, Making History



Assumptions are made about Saudi women all the time - faceless, nameless women hidden away by their own society.  The main reason for these suppositions is based solely on their seeming invisibility and nonexistence due to their homogenous veiled clothing.  But in the five short years (or long, depending on how you look at it) since I moved to Saudi Arabia, I have seen changes and accomplishments achieved by Saudi women at an accelerating warp speed that I could have never imagined…     
  
For example, last summer a group of 11 Saudi women reached the base camp of Mount Everest in an effort to raise awareness for breast cancer.  Their journey was even more remarkable for the fact that they were the first Saudi women ever to climb the world’s highest mountain and to accomplish such an arduous feat.   Leading the expedition was HRH Princess Reema Bandar Al Saud, a motivated and driven modern Saudi woman who supports many charitable causes, chief among them being breast cancer research and awareness.  

Team of Saudi women who climbed Mt. Everest in 2012

Politically there have been some sweeping and historic changes for women in KSA.  For the first time ever, thirty Saudi women were recently sworn in to the Shura Council, the prestigious but virtually powerless consulting advisory board to the king.   Women have also been given the green light to vote in elections in the year 2015. 

When I first moved to KSA in 2007, the only fields women were allowed to work in were education and medicine.  This meant that women were put in the demeaning and uncomfortable position of having to purchase intimate apparel, cosmetics, and abayas from salesmen.   Reem Asaad, a successful Saudi financier, wife and mother, conceived of and spearheaded an effective three year long campaign which made the King himself sit up and take notice, with the end result changing the face of retail establishments in Saudi Arabia and upping the number of women in the work force by leaps and bounds.   

Saudi women's rights activist Reem Asaad

In the 2012 Olympics, two Saudi women made history by becoming the first ever female athletes to compete representing Saudi Arabia.  Although the circumstances surrounding their involvement in the Olympics bordered on extortion - KSA was forced to cave in to pressure by the Olympic Committee’s very real threat of disallowing the kingdom’s male athletes if females were not allowed to participate    (heaven forbid if Saudi men were deprived from competing!) -  these two token Saudi women definitely created the most buzz and attracted the most attention of any athletes at the Olympics.  


Saudi female athletes at the 2012 Olympics

Another Saudi woman made pioneering history this past year when she became the first Saudi filmmaker to produce a feature movie filmed wholly within Saudi Arabia.  Haifaa Al Mansour’s film Wadjda has been warmly received by audiences around the world and tells the tale of a young girl who has a simple but forbidden dream - owning and riding her own bicycle - and how she courageously stands up for herself, and in effect, for oppressed females everywhere.  Director Al Mansour met with challenges and difficulties while filming the movie, resorting to directing her crew by walkie-talkie from inside a nearby van out of fear that there would be problems if she were seen giving directions to the male members of her crew in public.    


Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour

Okay, so women are still not permitted to drive yet in the kingdom, but I do feel that progress is being made in this area.  From all appearances, measures are being taken in preparation for women driving in Saudi Arabia to become a reality.  The Shura Council has agreed to take the matter of women driving under advisement.   Manal Al Sharif garnered worldwide attention and became the face of the women’s driving issue when in 2011 she was jailed for ten days for daring to drive on the streets of Saudi Arabia.  She has since received numerous honors and awards from organizations around the world.  

Saudi women's right activist Manal Al Sharif

So next time you think Saudi women are oppressed, think again.  

I’ll end this post with a popular anecdote about Bill Gates giving a speech in Saudi Arabia to an audience that was segregated by gender – men on one side and women veiled in black on the other side of a separating partition.  After Mr. Gates spoke, there was a question and answer period.  Someone asked if Gates thought it was realistic for Saudi Arabia to aspire to being one of the Top 10 countries in the world in technology by 2010.  “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country,” Gates said, “you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.” 

And how did the audience react?   “Well, one side of the room loved it,” quipped Gates.

17 comments:

  1. I think you're right about major changes. Sure hope that continues so the other half of the society can be part of the whole.

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    1. Thank you, Gaelyn - Sometimes I sit and think about all the changes and progress here in KSA since my arrival and it really boggles my mind.

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  2. Very refreshing to have a positive post about all that has been happening over there. Kudos to the brave! I liked the Gates comment.

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    1. Hi Lori - I'm not sure of the validity of the Gates part - it sounds more like folklore - but it makes for a good story. Thanks for stopping by.

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  3. I think the Bill Gates quotes is just so much bull. Saudi Arabia doesn't even harness the talents of its male citizens. It still relies on too much foreign labor. There is nothing wrong with living a non-industrial life as long as one accepts the consequences, such as a high infant mortality rate. The problem for Saudi Arabia is that they seem to desire modern conveniences without having to live in the world those modern conveniences bring. They have created artificial restraints on women that seem to be an entirely modern creation (if one can trust older accounts and older photographs). Saudi Arabia has a high birth rate and eventually the restraints against women will be too expensive to keep up.

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    1. You do have a point there, Jerry. However Saudi men have not been held back the ways that Saudi women have. I agree that relying on foreign labor is a pretty stupid policy that has far reaching consequences. And while Saudization is attempting to correct the problem, until the Saudis' attitudes toward good honest work changes, this will continue to be a big problem for many years to come.

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    2. I do agree that men in Saudi Arabia have mostly imposed that own restrictions. Most people I know in the US have performed menial tasks. I was a busboy in college, my brothers worked in supermarkets (my younger brother was the own who sprayed water on the vegetables 30+ years ago).

      In the US many teachers work construction jobs during the summer. It isn't considered demeaning at all here.

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  4. I enjoyed your story. However, the women mentioned are from openminded and well off families. They are not held back and have often travelled outside. The Mt Everest group is led by a wealthy princess and no doubt similar social status companions.Bravo for them making the trek but if trouble brewed ''wasta'' is on their side. I have lived here since 2005. I was told before I came women would be allowed to drive soon. I am still waiting :(

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    1. Hi Anonymous - For sure not all women here have the same opportunities and privileges as others, but you'll find that anywhere. Change cannot happen here without the open minded family backers that these women have - and thankfully it is happening! Yes, some changes will take more time, but I can't help but be struck by how much progress I have seen in my time here. I am confident that women will be driving in Saudi Arabia - and hopefully it will be sooner than later.

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    2. Wonderful examples you give, Susie and yes there is reason to rejoice and have hope. However it seems that your sentence "So next time you think Saudi women are oppressed, think again" is a fraction too quick. From what I read in your blog and elsewhere many and most women ARE oppressed in KSA, or else you'd be out and about driving and shopping on your own. The oppression is still there like a brick wall but there are cracks in it and might fall down faster than we all think. It's wonderful that you are witnessing and documenting these changes. Keep up the good work Susie!

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  5. Hi, there is an error in your article, the 11 women did not reach the summit of Mt Everest (very challenging feat that takes professional climbers years and years to practice and prepare for). They treked to the base camp of Mt Everest.

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    1. Thank you, Aman - my oversight. I've corrected my error.

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  6. Hi Susie--Great entry! I, too, continue to be pleasantly surprised by all the amazingly quick changes happening with women in this country.

    When I moved here a year and a half ago, women were only just beginning to work in lingerie stores. Thankfully I never had to go through purchasing my undergarments from a man!

    Judging by the impressive leaps and bounds women are taking in Saudi Arabia, the "other half of the population" will continue to make KSA stronger and better!

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    1. Hi Julie - It really blows my mind when I think about the real progress I have seen for women in Saudi Arabia in the five years I have lived here. I'm glad you have noticed it too in just the short time you have been here!

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  7. you said "So next time you think Saudi women are oppressed, think again"
    It is a fact Saudi women are oppressed, as well as there are happening progress in the Saudi society.

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    1. Hi Esmeralda - My point with this post is that progress is definitely being made in some areas.

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  8. Assumptions are made about Saudi women all the time - faceless, nameless women hidden away by their own society. The main reason for these suppositions is based solely on their seeming invisibility and nonexistence due to their homogenous veiled clothing.
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