A forum called “Women in Leadership” was held in Jeddah in December to focus on assisting women entrepreneurs in five areas: government help, finance, knowledge and education, commercialization and support but also address other issues important to women in the Kingdom. Besides calling for more forums on women’s empowerment around the Kingdom and development of a strategy addressing women’s issues the question of a new Ministry of Women’s Affairs was put on the table. Ms. Samar Fatany, a journalist from Jeddah, and past contributor to SUSRIS, contributed her views on the prospects of such a development through an op-ed in Arab News [reprinted here]. Today, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, Fatany takes another turn at calling for comprehensive efforts to empower women in the Kingdom, making a convincing case that the success of modernization in the Kingdom will depend on the progress made in reforming social strictures that limit women’s potential.
Empowering women the biggest challenge
Each year on March 8 the world celebrates International Women’s Day to commemorate their achievements, defend their rights and speak out against the policies that discriminate against them. In Saudi Arabia we should resolve to do the same.
Without the empowerment of women, our challenges will continue to grow more complex. Serious reforms need to be implemented and policies put in place so that Saudi women may fully contribute to the nation’s development. Women constitute half of our population and more than half of our university graduates — 57 percent in fact. Without their full participation, Saudi Arabia will continue to lag behind the rest of the world.
There is no doubt that there are reforms taking place, and there are positive initiatives toward progress; however, the implementation of many promised reforms is very slow, and there is a growing sense of frustration over the official reluctance to enforce much needed judicial, social and organizational reforms.
We live in an era of increasing economic pressure. Global competitiveness is not so much a concern as it is a requisite for survival. The pace of global progress is accelerating; yet there are those among us who lull themselves into a false belief that there is no urgency to domestic progress — who say we need to develop slowly to allow society more time to accept change and adopt more progressive attitudes.
Modernizing Saudi society and achieving prosperity remains our greatest challenge. Yet half of our population remains deprived of their basic rights as equal citizens to work or travel and are shackled by an imposed guardianship law that perpetuates injustice and discrimination in our society. Even a matter so basic as the physical exercise necessary for good health becomes an issue in the current state of affairs.
According to official estimates, women represent only 16 percent of the total work force, which means there is a high unemployment rate among women. Job opportunities for women are extremely limited, and the bellicose, unreasoned societal pushback against women entering new job sectors often erodes what little progress is made.
Economists stress that the high cost of living and inflation make it difficult for single-income families to provide the basic needs of the average family living in Saudi Arabia today. The participation of women in the work force is no longer a luxury; it has become an economic necessity. Therefore, it is crucial now to mobilize a more effective national program to tap women’s talent, enhance their skills and provide them with career opportunities so they may contribute equally in our nation’s social and economic development.
Women have every right to be provided with a healthy, civilized lifestyle more in tune with the 21st century way of life. We need to see women in the council of senior scholars or as advisers to the grand mufti to address their needs and grievances and have a say in decisions that affect their lives and their families. Women face injustice and discrimination because many judges and senior ulemas are unaware of the suffering.
Cultural limitations and tribal laws rather than religious rulings are the impediments that are strangling our country. It is time for the educated to boldly counter the vicious campaign of the extremists — men and women — who continue to attack progress. It is ironic how these “medievalists” so resistant to change adopt the Internet and modern media to attack the educated calling for the empowerment of women in Saudi society. It is time for moderate religious scholars and government officials to stand up and be counted. Those who respect women as equal citizens of this land must defy the continued threats of the hard-liners who are resistant to change and threaten the future of our younger generation. It is time for policymakers to embrace the advancements of modernity with progressive strategies and better initiatives to effect change and development.
We need to support the implementation of social and cultural reforms to project the true principles of Islam that honor women and protect their rights if we wish to maintain our status as the center of the Muslim world and a respected global economic power. Continued disregard for world public opinion will surely have a negative impact on our global standing.
Hard-liners with a rigid interpretation of Islam tarnish our image as Muslim women in the international community. The religious message of some of the hard-liners who still exert some control over our society is unacceptable to other Muslims in the world who adhere to other schools of thought in Islam. Across the Muslim world, women vote and run in national elections, and they sometimes lead their nations. Even GCC countries with societies similar to our own have recognized women in leadership positions. Women in Bahrain and Kuwait have become ministers; in Oman they are active members of the Shoura Council. The rest of the Arab world has many women leaders who have been active as legislators and legal participants in the decision-making process.
Let us celebrate International Women’s Day with a renewed hope that our decision-makers accelerate women’s full participation and stand up to those extremist elements among us who are perverting our society, distorting our image abroad and hindering the potential progress and development of our country.
— Samar Fatany is a Saudi radio journalist; she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: Arab News
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