Saudi Arabia: Forum on the role of women suggests that empowerment is the key to future economic prosperity

Arab News
At a recent forum looking at the role of Saudi women in the year 2020, the discussions were candid, the potential was exciting and the reality often disturbing.
The event was organized by the Khadija bint Khuwailid Center for Businesswomen at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI), and it was clear that women have an important role to play in the future of Saudi Arabia.
In her keynote address, Princess Adelah bint Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz stressed the importance of women’s empowerment and cautioned that the country will never develop without using all the talents and abilities of Saudi citizens — both men and women. She estimated the Kingdom’s current work force to be 11.5 million and anticipated that the figure would rise to 21 million by 2020.

She said the contribution of women is inevitable with 121,000 Saudi girls graduating from secondary schools and 44,000 from universities annually. Moreover, Saudi women invest SR42 billion in the market and their bank savings amount to SR100 billion.During the two-day forum, business and academic leaders from the Arab world, Saudi government officials and progressive-thinking men and women came up with recommendations and policies to facilitate women’s participation in the nation’s economic development. They said education and training are the keys to opening women’s role in nation building, and they discussed the obstacles that stand in the way of women’s empowerment.

Abdul Wahid Al-Homaid, deputy minister of labor, told forum participants that 66 percent of Saudi university students are women, and that makes their integration into the workforce a must for progress and development. He said the government is keen to address the factors that hinder the process of employing women, which include transportation problems, unpleasant working conditions and the lack of the proper skills to qualify women to work in much-needed services, such as health care, information technology or women-specific retail services, such as lingerie and beauty-product stores.

However, women in the audience criticized the ministry for making it difficult for them to manage their own businesses without a male guardian or agent, which often allows men to wrest control of women’s money.Analyzing Shariah policies that govern women’s employment in the Kingdom, Mohammed Al-Mushawih, accredited Ministry of Justice consultant and judge, discussed pre-emptive regulations applied to protect Muslim values in the work force including segregation laws, the niqab (face veil) and the ban on women driving. Unfortunately, it is such excessive precautionary laws and regulations that have stood in the way of women’s employment and limited their business opportunities.

The need to codify Shariah law in order to eliminate ambiguities and monitor its incorrect implementation was emphasized by Adnan Al-Buraikan, a prominent Saudi lawyer. He stressed the importance of a Shariah code of law that would help familiarize the people with their legal rights and obligations in Islam. Participants also discussed mechanisms to revise some of the rules and regulations that would better serve society in accordance with a more enlightened interpretation of Shariah.

One of the forum’s highlights was the boldness of speakers who debated the obstacles related to tradition and culture, rigid interpretations of Islam, unsupportive families and husbands as well as Shariah laws and regulations governing women’s employment. Audience members voiced their concerns to participants on issues that were taboo in the past; now they openly criticized the policies and rulings that impede our society and hinder our progress and development as a nation.

In most Muslim countries the role of women is limited. This is due to the fact that Muslim women are unaware of their legal rights in Islam, and many men abuse the women’s limited knowledge of Islam. Dr. Farida Banany, professor of higher education, Faculty of Law in Morocco, urged Saudi women to learn their legal rights so as to differentiate between what is culture or tradition and what is Shariah law. Women should speak up and demand their God-given rights, and they should not be intimidated by family pressure or social customs if they wish to succeed and develop, she said.

The greatest impediments to Saudi women today are religious extremists who have exerted an intolerant stranglehold on the social and educational environment for a very long time. They continue to resist the implementation of reforms and accuse government reformists of adopting policies that fall beyond the narrow bounds of their so-called “Muslim” way of life.

Until the extremists’ manipulation of our youth in schools is curbed, their inappropriate obstruction of government regulations to integrate women into the work force is checked, and society realizes that women are equal contributing members of society, the reform movement in Saudi Arabia will continue to slog at a very slow pace, compromising the Kingdom’s regional leadership and its vital influence on the Muslim world while damning our children to a future of ignorance and poverty.

Souad Al-Hakeem, professor of philosophy at Lebanon University’s Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences, gave an inspiring presentation in which she said that women must not allow incorrect interpretations of Islam to stand in the way of recognizing Muslim women as international role models who are capable of global thinking and becoming international partners in progress and development.

The Khadija bint Khuwailid Center for Businesswomen should be commended for organizing such a forum and for its members’ hard work and dedication to addressing the obstacles that stand in the way of the advancement of women in Saudi society and their initiatives to provide better services for Saudi women in business and in the work force.The forum was indeed an excellent exercise to assess the current status of women and to identify the challenges and opportunities available in order to achieve the destined goal to present a model for the Arab and Muslim women and a contributing force to the national economic growth of our beloved Kingdom.

The recommendations of the forum were both ambitious and encouraging. However, it remains to be seen whether the judiciary and ministries will take these recommendations into account and whether the reform movement will be accelerated so that Saudi men and women can catch up with the more advanced countries of the world that have already decided their people belong at the front of the line.

By: Samar Fatany