Saudi Arabia, the “mysterious ally” of the U.S., is on the verge of great change, especially concerning the role of women in Saudi Society. These roles are now often challenged by both internal and external influences. Through education, economic, social, and political avenues, Saudi women have started to challenge the status quo by assert themselves within their own society. As NBC’s expert John Irvine comments on Saudi Arabia, “some of our perceptions are hardly flattering, especially when it comes to the treatment of women. But it seems a door has just been unlocked.”1 On January 2013, for the first time in Saudi history, King Abdallah appointed thirty women to the Shura Council through a royal decree. This council acts as an advisory council similar to the British House of Lords. The Shura Council, like most of Saudi Society, will be segregated by gender.
In order to understand the role of Saudi women one must first understand the historical context involved in this complex issue. Pre-Islamic society established many of the patriarchal aspects still present within Saudi Society. The introduction of Islam challenged traditional gender roles and the role of women in society. According to Nora Pharaon, a renowned Middle East expert, there is “no doubt there is a general thrust toward equality of the sexes in the Qu’ran…it advocates equal rights for women. The Qu’ran does not only create a belief about rights of women but clearly declares that they are equal to men in matters of rights.”2 For example, the Prophet Mohammed’s first wife, Khadijah, “was a wealthy widow who, before her marriage to Muhammad, employed him to oversee her caravan, which traded between Mecca and Syria. She proposed to and married him when she was forty and he twenty-five.”3 In a society that places such a high emphasis on Islamic teachings and customs, why is there such a disconnect between influential women within its own history and the current status of women?
One of the idiosyncrasies many westerners find fascinating about Saudi society is the inability for women to drive. In a conversation the author, Dr. Mody Alkhalaf, attaché for cultural and social affairs at the Saudi Cultural Mission under the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., shed light on the true concerns of women within the Kingdom. Dr. Mody, one of the first Saudi women to embark on the movement for change, expressed that women were more concerned with representing themselves in court than they were with driving. Therefore, many Western preconceived notions of “concerns of women,” such as the type of clothing women are required to wear outside the house, are actually trivial concerns for them. According to Dr. Mody, “progress is not impossible, but it must come from within Saudi society. Effective change will not happen because the outside world demands it, but only if change comes from within Saudi Arabia.” Western-centric views on how Saudi Arabia treats its citizens must therefore take an advisory role.4
On a study visit to the Kingdom, sponsored by the National Council on US-Arab Relations and the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Higher Education, the author, along with fellow American student delegates, was able to visit to Dar Al-Hekma, House of Wisdom, College for girls, and meet not only with faculty but also students that gave positive view of the future role of Saudi women. The author was very impressed with the enthusiasm of these girls and the things they have done for their community. The chair of the newly formed graphic design program at Dar Al-Hekma spoke to us about the role of Saudi women within the larger society, saying “[We] Saudi women have to trust ourselves and push the boundaries. Women must respect who they are and where they come from in order to move forward.”5 She pointed to a graduate of the Dar Al-Hekma institute who created the first fashion and design magazine in Saudi Arabia. She relates that “some of their clients have come to me giving praise, and even said that my girls were undercharging them for their services.”5 She went on to state that this was not because of any form of sexism, but rather, the women did not realize the extent to which their services were demanded. This provides a very optimistic outlook as to the status of women in Saudi Society: the goods and services provided by women entering the private sector are in high demand, even if the women themselves don’t realize this yet.
In one such example, the Nafisa Shams Academy for Arts & Crafts in the port city of Jeddah specializes in empowering women by giving them a job making artistic creations ranging from prayer beads, prayer mats, soaps and dolls in traditional Saudi dress. The academy first trains these women, and then provides them with the materials they need to create beautiful works of art. These women can work in the center, or they can collect the materials from the academy and create the pieces at home, effectively carving their own niche in the economy and in the Saudi work force.
According to Thomas Lippman, Saudi Arabia expert and author of Saudi Arabia On The Edge, “statistics about Saudi Arabia are notoriously unreliable. According to the World Bank and United Nations calculations, Saudi Arabia’s per capita income in 2009 was less than half of what it was in 1980.”6 In his book, Lippman interviewed scholar Elenator Doumato, an analyst of Saudi education, about the education of women in the Kingdom. Doumato stated: “fifty-eight percent of all higher education students are women, if teachers’ colleges are included, 79% of PhDs granted in the Kingdom have been awarded to women, and 40% of all physicians with Saudi nationality are women. Yet Saudi Arabia has the lowest percentage of women in the workforce anywhere in the world, and 84% of women who are employed work in the country’s bloated, sex-segregated education system.”6
The Al-Sayeda Khadija Bint Khowailid business center is an extension of the Saudi Chamber of Commerce, and lobbies for the rights of women within Saudi Society. The Center aims to aid women join the work force by lobbying for issues such as increased funding for public transportation. Seeing that women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia, a lack of public transportation limits the hours and availability of women to work outside the home. Although the numbers are not available to us, this rings especially true for women in lower income brackets. The future goal of the Khadija Center is to get Saudi opinion polls about issues relating to women in order to more effectively lobby on behalf of women. In another perspective, Ms. Haya Anani, an employee of the Center, stated that “women don’t want to be equal to men, they just want to play a role in their society”.7 This statement could hold the keys to understanding the future of the women’s movement within Saudi Arabia, resting upon the assumption that there are separate roles for women and men within their society. Haya implied that women were not equal to men in every way; she believes progress in the eyes of the institute would be to more clearly define and solidify the rights that they believe women possess. Does that not mean that she wants Saudi women to have “freedom” in the western sense of the word? Is the neo-classical view of feminism enough for the women in Saudi society, or is it exactly what the women in Saudi Arabia need?
The author had the opportunity to discuss the role of women within Saudi Arabia with Mrs. Janet Smith, the wife of U.S. Ambassador James Smith. Mrs. Smith, an American woman with firsthand experience of Saudi laws and social views of women, stated that “in order for Saudi society to progress, society must hold a conversation between the leaders of Islam and the public.”8 This conversation, which will establish what Islamic values are and how one should operate underneath them, will lead to increased awareness of women’s role within the Qu’ran and the Kingdom. In the years to come it will be fascinating to see just how Saudi women adhere to their Islamic identity while simultaneously defining and solidifying their role within their society.
1. “Doors Opening For Saudi Women.” NightlyNews. NBC News: 23 01 2013. Radio. <http://video.msnbc.msn.com/nightly-news/50566556/?ocid=twitter.
2. Pharaon, Nora A. “Saudi Women and the Twenty-First Century.” Sex Roles, vol.51 (2004): 349-66.
3. Ahmed, Leila. “Women and the Rise of Islam.” Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. N.p.: Yale UP, 1993. Print.
4. Alkhalaf, Mody. Personal Interview. 27 December 2012.
5. Dar Al-Hekma. Personal Interview. 03 January 2013.
6. Lippman, Thomas W. “Women: The Coming Breakout.” Saudi Arabia On The Edge (2009): 149-76.
7. Anani, Haya. Personal Interview. 05 January 2013.
8. Smith, Janet. Personal Interview. 30 December 2012.
9. Image Credit (approved for use by photographer): Anonymous. “Graffiti on a school’s wall in Riyadh: “The people want a revolution” in Arabic.
10. Image Credit (personal photo): Kadiata Sy. “National Council on US-Arab Relations student delegates to Saudi Arabia in conversation with US Ambassador James Smith in Riyad.” Last modified 2012.
Kadiata Sy is a junior at Emory University majoring in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies. Kadiata is a National Council on US-Arab Relations Fellow and recently traveled to Saudi Arabia for a study visit. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.