“Women in Leadership Forum” Calls for Action

Published: December 9, 2010

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Editor’s Note:

In May Jafar Alshayeb, chairman of the Qatif municipal council, wrote that women’s rights held a central place in social reform efforts in “Women’s Rights Gain Focus in Saudi Arabia,” for the Carnegie Endowment’s “Arab Reform Bulletin.” He offered that King Abdullah’s “relatively liberal position” created an opening for initiatives empowering women. Alshayeb noted advancements like: appointing a women deputy minister of education; firing a cleric for condemning coed education at the landmark King Abdullah University of Science and Technology; and elevating women to posts at chambers of commerce in Jeddah and the Eastern Province. In the introduction to SUSRIS’ posting of Alshayeb’s report we noted that Thomas Lippman in his book on US-Saudi relations, “Inside the Mirage,” wrote in 2004, “I’ve had the strong impression from visiting Saudi Arabia that there is a new generation of educated Saudi women who are trying to claim what they think is their proper place in the economic and social life of the country, as indeed they should. For economic reasons if no other they are gradually going to be accommodated. So what you see, as so often happens in Saudi Arabia, is the attempt to balance the progressive instincts of some parts of the society against what I would call the retrogressive instincts of other parts of the society. It’s a difficult balance to manage and that’s the job of the House of Saud.”

With that context in mind we provide for your consideration an article by Fatima Sidiya and Diana Al-Jassem, with input from Mariam Nihal, for Arab News reporting on last week’s “Women in Leadership Forum,” in Jeddah. They provide an overview of the issues and a discussion of the challenges and the way forward for empowering women in the Kingdom. This report is accompanied on SUSRIS this week with an op-ed by journalist Samar Fatany who talks about the call for a “Ministry for Women’s Affairs” that arose after the forum; and there is an op-ed in Arab News which focuses on getting women into the Saudi work force.

Forum discusses strategy to empower women
Fatima Sidiya & Diana Al-Jassem

Women's forum
Princess Lolowah Al-Faisal (Back row center) distributed awards at the Women in Leadership Forum in Jeddah.

Participants at the Women in Leadership Forum, which ended in Jeddah at the Park Hyatt Jeddah hotel on Wednesday, called for more similar forums in other parts of the Kingdom and a strategy to empower women, said Nashwa Al-Taher, executive director of the Al-Taher Group.

Al-Taher, who is also a former member of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said participants also called for a strategy to empower women and develop “a proper atmosphere for women in 30 years time.”

Commenting on the role of the Kingdom’s chambers of commerce and industry, several employees of chambers said the bodies’ remit does not include finding jobs for unemployed women. “Employment is the job of the Civil Service Council. Our job is to provide services to companies,” said Lyla Ashadawi, president of the Asharqia Young Businesswomen Executive Counsel at the Asharqia Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Her views were echoed by Al-Taher and Haila Al-Saud, head of the women’s section of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Our role is to help women initiate businesses,” said Al-Saud.

Ashadawi also said there is a need to create more small businesses to generate jobs. Large companies, she said, will not provide job opportunities due to low profit margins, which do not exceed 4 percent in the Middle East while in other regions it is as high as 40 percent.

“There are also some 113,000 graduates who are studying on scholarship programs abroad and will come back soon,” said Ashadawi.

Noura Al-Turki, head of the women’s section at the Institute of Banking, criticized the absence of men at the event. “I hope we could see men at all women-related conferences. They have to come and listen to us. For years we have been discussing everything on our own. This is not practical. They are decision makers and have to be here,” she said.

In her closing speech, Lina Almaeena, co-founder and director of the Jeddah United Sports Company, said the “biggest benefit and achievement” was the chance to meet women figures from different walks of life and regions of the Kingdom. “You felt like there is a synergy and cooperation with all sections of Saudi society” recognizing the potential of each other, she said.

She added that she was delighted “to meet so many decision and policy making women” at one place. Providing a summary of the idea of the event, she said, “Networking with women who are in different situations, positions and cultures within the same society. Indeed, this conference was about uniting Saudi women.”

She added that though she and the basketball team she is captain of have been attacked for breaking cultural norms by appearing in the international media, she believes they are challenging negative stereotypes about Saudi women.

“Women in the Kingdom are thought to be restricted and considered second-class citizens. We wanted to change that stereotype though the involvement of women and their families in sports activities,” she said.

Speaking about the help offered to disabled youth, Buthina Al-Kathiri, head of the women section at the Human Resources Fund in Jeddah, said, “We can offer rehabilitation programs for disabled youths that includes both males and females to start their own projects. The programs require the youth to develop a plan and have the sponsorship of organizations such as the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Abdul Latif Jameel Community Services Program and others. We can’t offer jobs or financial support to the disabled unless they have a sponsor.”

“The Human Resources Fund is trying to play a key role in hiring a big number of youth and tackle the problem of unemployment. We receive a large number of girls who are interested to learn several fields such as nursing, banking, human resources and insurance in order to … get jobs,” she said.

Speaking on the sidelines of the event, Dr. Fawzeia Mohammed Akhdar, associate member of the National Region of Handicapped People, said most disabled individuals are unemployed though they may be very talented.

“We’ve prepared several programs to enable the disabled to develop skills. Many have skills in various subjects and our job is to present their ideas and projects to interested bodies, but we can’t get organizations to sponsor them. These organizations prefer people who are not disabled,” she said.

Khadija Aboud Baheda, head of the women section of Aware Association for Social Awareness and Rehabilitation, complained about the weak communication ties between officials at the Human Resources Fund and charity associations.

“We do not know about the programs on offer for the disabled or orphans. There are no periodical visits or meetings between officials at the Human Resources Fund and charity associations,” she said.

“The Human Resources Fund only arranges periodical visits at private universities and institutions and ignores needy group such as those that deal with disabled people.”

The forum also hosted the Kingdom Women in Leadership Awards to recognize leading women from across the Kingdom. On the first day of the conference Princess Lolowah Al-Faisal, vice chair and general supervisor of the board of trustees of Effat University, distributed awards.

The Saudi Businesswoman of the Year award went to Wafaa Abbar, the Most Innovative Woman Entrepreneur award went to Lina Almaeena, the Leading Woman in the Public Sector award went to Maha Al-Muneef, the Leading Woman CEO award went to Haifa Jamalallail, the Leading Woman in a Family Business award went to Mashael Al-Suleiman, the Most Women-Friendly Employer award went to Jeddah Municipality, the award for Women Empowerment went to Al-Waleed bin Talal Foundation and the Most Philanthropic Initiative award went to the National Commercial Bank.

— With input from Mariam Nihal

Source: Arab News

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