Societal changes encouraging women to flourish
I would like to sum up some of the reforms that have changed Saudi society with regards to women. These changes have been positive — although some would say slow to take place — and should be, if not celebrated, at least acknowledged.
The backbone of any country is education. In 1962, King Faisal opened public education to girls, which was optional at the time. In 1970, the first higher education institution for girls — the Riyadh College of Education — was established. In the space of a decade, education for women across the country leapt to achieve international standards. The King Abdullah Scholarship Program has also sent thousands of men and women across the globe and women have proven they do better than men in higher education.
Slowly, other reforms were implemented to help women gain more independence and, in 2001, personal ID cards for women were introduced, although it wasn’t until 2006 that they could obtain one without permission.
In an unprecedented move in 2009, King Abdullah appointed the first female minister, Dr. Noura Al-Fayez, who became Deputy Minister of Education for Women’s Affairs. This was followed in 2012 by female athletes competing in the Olympics for the first time, with Sarah Attar proudly running the women’s 800-meter race in London while wearing a hijab.
In February 2013, 30 women were appointed and sworn in to the Shoura Council by King Abdullah, placing women in decision-making positions with exactly the same rights as their male counterparts. This was followed in 2015 by the municipal elections, where women won 22 seats.
February 2017 saw the appointment of the first female chairperson at the Saudi Stock Exchange, Sarah Al-Suhaimi. And, in September of the same year, a royal order was passed allowing women to drive, which became a reality in June 2018. Additionally, sports were introduced in girls’ schools, women were allowed in stadiums, Raha Moharrak climbed Mount Everest, and Princess Reema bint Bandar took up a key role at the General Sports Authority. Ministries have been told to facilitate women’s queries and resolve their requests, as well as create more jobs for women.
Examples of successful milestones and women are too numerous to mention. Suffice it to say that, as a result of a forward-thinking leadership and through Vision 2030, the participation of women in society through a clear strategic policy can only bring economic growth to the country both in the public and private sectors. The developmental changes of the last few years will lead Saudi women to greater leadership positions in public domains.
Gender parity is still far off, but this is the case worldwide. Women are not better than men, they are their partners and have rights. We must promote our achievements and emphasize the fact that they are part of the natural process of social evolutionary change.
Hoda Al-Helaissi has been a member of the Shoura Council since 2013 and is also a member of its foreign affairs committee.