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Woman matters   

Arab News - 02 May, 2012
Author: Reem M. Asaad

The simplest right

In one media release, Princess Hessa bint Salman, a well-known female figure and a patron of some women activities in the Kingdom, underscored the significance of various government and private organizations in fulfilling their social responsibility by ensuring the participation of women in the development of national industries.

The press release goes on “Princess Hessa was attending a ceremony where an agreement to establish the women’s wing of the Military Clothes and Supplies Factory in the western region was signed.”

The above hardly turns any heads because the era of King Abdullah was marked by many significant and unprecedented advances in women status and work rights. In fact, never were women able to travel on academic and training scholarships with such ease and support as they are today.

Despite all this, inside Saudi Arabia, women still don’t have the legal right to travel from point A to point B independently without a male driver (personal or other), period. And in my opinion, anything said about women advancing without the right of mobility (or at least proper public transport) is plainly limped. Undoubtedly many influential figures wish they could drive, that regulations were more accommodating or that court rules bent more in their favor but good will alone doesn’t change anything. Only the government can. The usual rhetoric about the public acceptance of women driving no longer flies. Sorry, dear women, you are not independent until you can move freely down your own streets.

An ideal woman

So, the headlines flash out about a Saudi female doctor, scientist or other professional with outstanding award or breakthrough. The press coverage often glamorizes this achievement with plenty of additives on how she overcame cultural barriers with the support of a husband, father or other male relative, a credit that society and local followers expect to see. After a usually engaging — and sometimes inspiring — story of the journey come the reader comments.

In Saudi, the most important aspect of woman participation in public life and economic sphere remains to be … modesty. Her modesty determines whether she is a “fit” Saudi woman or a “model Saudi woman” (i.e. representative of her fellow Saudi women). So if her picture appears in the news, she is judged by the level of coverage on her face. On a scale from completely veiled (face unseen) to bare head — with many variations in between — a woman’s appearance in commented on and therefore the woman gets “labeled” or socially stratified based on the level of modesty.

In fairness, a woman is judged on her looks everywhere in the world, and modesty is a key part of professional appearance yet ranking it as the most critical feature of an achieving woman who serves her community is nothing but ridiculous.

So, who is the “picture perfect” Saudi woman these days?

The majority across the board will probably describe her as a well-covered, (ideally niqab-wearing and at a minimum full hair coverage without makeup) preferably a mother who handles both work and household responsibilities.

Reader comments gauge not only public opinion but also cultural sentiment and perception of the society. Sometimes I skip the headlines right down to these comments just to assess if anything has changed, and I do sense some progress that is a bit too slow for my taste.

Money matters

The banking sector in Saudi Arabia remains to be the most regulated and organized in the economy. Since the seventies, women worked in women-only branches as tellers, customer service representatives and branch managers. My own mother was an officer in one of Jeddah’s most prominent banks, and as a child I accompanied her during school breaks to an office of fewer than ten women. I remember how I was — to my greatest amusement — assigned to small tasks like paper copying or delivery. Two decades later things have not changed much in terms of organizational structure. In fact, it was not until 2001 that the bank at which my mother worked, allowed women a slow and shy entry to more senior and gender-mixed positions. I was among three women appointed in executive roles not limited to servicing women-only. Today, the bank employs at least 100 women in its headquarters in positions ranging from junior assistants to department heads. The journey since then is worth documenting. It involves cultural, religious and technical anecdotes to be taught and to be learned from. Among other writers, I credit the financial industry for bringing to the society a generation of well-trained professional women as well as more relaxed and “female accepting” men who now view women as an integral part of the workplace and not just the social and household scene.

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