Saudi women over the moon with positive changes

International Women Day


Saudi Gazette

MANY recent changes in Saudi Arabia have contributed to further strengthening its women and enhancing their progress and prosperity, to the surprise of its ardent critics. Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman’s landmark decision allowing women to drive has been applauded by all in the Kingdom and abroad. Saudi women compete with their male counterparts in higher education and have started carving a niche for themselves in top political, economic and administrative positions.

Although the state religion Islam has given women top position in the society, the male-dominated system and certain customs and traditions have weakened their status in the country. Over the past years, the government has been trying to empower women by providing them with education, protecting their rights, allowing them to vote and contest elections, preventing violence against women and children and creating more job opportunities in different sectors.

But it was this royal decree that acted as a spur in the women empowerment — a definitive goal in Vision 2030. King Salman issued a historic royal decree on Sept. 26, 2017 granting driving licenses for women in the Kingdom as of June. He also ordered the establishment of a high-level committee tasked with studying the arrangements within 30 days to ensure full implementation of the decree by June 2018.

“This is a great victory for Saudi women. This was the one file and issue which Saudi women have fought not just years, but decades for. Every time we asked for this right, we were told the time was not right,” said Latifa Shaalan, a female member of the Shoura Council, while commending King Salman for taking this bold decision.

Perhaps the appointment of women on the Shoura Council in January 2013 was the most important political decision taken by King Abdullah. At present 20 percent of the 150-member consultative body are women who give their opinion and advise the government on various social, economic, cultural and security issues. Twenty-seven of the first group of 30 women that King Abdullah appointed on the Shoura had doctorate degrees.

“We made this decision because we refuse to marginalize women in the Saudi society,” King Abdullah stated in his landmark speech addressing the Shoura Council. “Muslim women in our history have had stances that cannot be sidelined...since the time of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.” The king stressed that “balanced modernization compatible with Islamic values was a significant necessity.”

Another Royal Decree announced that women would have the right to run and vote in the 2015 municipal elections. At least 20 women were elected to municipal councils in landmark polls that were conducted later in December 2015. “Even if it was only one woman, we’re really proud of that,” said Sahar Hassan Naseef in Jeddah after the election.

Speedy changes are taking place in the Kingdom for the welfare and progress of women. Salma Al Rashid of Al-Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women, said there had been significant change in the past 18 months in line with economic shifts. “Things are changing so fast, little things here and there ... but there is still a lot of work to do on cultural attitudes and at the policy level,” she added.

Sarah Suhaimi has been appointed to the board of Directors of the Saudi Stock Exchange Tadawul, and Rania Mahmoud Nashar was made CEO of Samba Financial Group, becoming the first woman to be an executive manager of a Saudi bank. The Arab National Bank has named Latifah Sabhan as chief financial officer of the bank. The new appointments reflect Saudi women’s growing role in the society.

Other prominent Saudi women achievers are: Dr. Mona Al-Munajjed, a sociologist who won the UN-21 Award for Excellence; Dr. Khawla S. Al-Khuraya, a distinguished name in medical research and professor of pathology; Dr. Hayat Sindi, a scientist who became UNESCO’s Goodwill Ambassador for science education; and Somayya Jabarti, editor-in-chief of Saudi Gazette, a leading English language daily in the Middle East. Jabarti is the first woman editor-in-chief of an daily newspaper in the Kingdom.

Bayan Mahmoud Al-Zahran, the first female licensed lawyer in the Kingdom and founder of the first female law firm; Haifa Al-Mansour, the first Saudi female film director with an unbeatable talent to illuminate female characters; Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, who was appointed as the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund in 2001; and Lubna Olayan who was nominated by Forbes as the 86th most powerful woman of the world in 2014 are other world famous Saudi women.

“There is a sound economic argument around the collaboration between women and men that can benefit our GDP by over $50 billion by 2025,” said an economic analyst, stressing the need to empower women. The Kingdom’s Vision 2030 aims to increase women workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent. According to the latest figures issued by the Central Department of Statistics and Information, since 2010 the number of women employed in Saudi Arabia has increased by 48 percent.

The Human Rights Commission, a rights watchdog of the government, has emphasized the Kingdom’s efforts to protect women’s rights. “Saudi law allows women to represent the government at regional and international levels by working in embassies and consulates and joining Saudi delegations to regional and international conferences and other events,” said HRC in a recent report.

“Saudi women enjoy their rights in all areas and nobody can deny this fact, and their position is being strengthened day after day through various regulations,” the HRC said while highlighting the Saudi leadership’s role in empowering women and increase job opportunities for them.

The commission said Saudi Arabia has banned discrimination against women through Article 8 of the Basic Law of Governance, adding that Saudi laws impose tougher punishment on criminals when women are the victims. A Royal Decree has been issued to prevent discrimination against women at public and private agencies and enhance public awareness on the issue.

Saudi women no longer require the support and presence of a male guardian to complete various government procedures and receive public services. Royal Decree No. 33322 has instructed all government departments not to ask women get approval of a male guardian to receive the various services they offer.

New laws also protect women’s alimony rights. The Labor Law prevents employment of women to do dangerous industrial work. Women should not be dismissed from work during pregnancy or post-delivery period, according to Article 156 of the Labor Law.

The Civil Service Law prevents termination of women workers for reasons related to marriage and motherhood, the HRC said. They are entitled to a leave of up to 10 years to accompany their husbands. They can also take special leave for pregnancy, delivery and childcare, it explained.

Princess Reema Bint Bandar, vice president of the General Sports Authority, has expressed her satisfaction over the progress achieved by Saudi women. The government is working to address deeper issues on the path to women’s rights after allowing them to drive and attend soccer matches, she said.

“These are things that are quick wins, we know we can do them, women in stadium, women driving, that’s great, but women-driving is not the end all, be all of women’s rights,” Princess Reema told the Atlantic Council in Washington while stressing the government’s endeavors to ensure safety of women at home and protect them from violence.