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.