Saudi women: Old stereotypes no longer hold
Saudi Arabia is scrutinized more than almost any other country in the world on issues of female empowerment. So it came as a shock to most Western media pundits and analysts when three young Saudi women took the most senior, competitive financial positions in both the private and public sectors within days of each other in February, with almost no controversy.
Reem Nashar became the first female CEO of a Saudi Bank, Samba; Sahar Al-Suhaimi became head of the Saudi Stock Exchange (Tadawul); and Latifa Al-Sabhan became CFO of the Arab National Bank (ANB). The world can now see what we have always known, that Saudi women can attain the leadership positions they deserve.
These developments came in the wake of the appointment of several young female deputy ministers in non-traditional ministries, including Princess Reema bint Bander Al-Saud at the General Sports Authority, and Sofana Al-Dahlan becoming vice general at the General Authority for Small and Medium Businesses. This was followed by the selection of Dr. Dalal Namanaqani as the first female president of a co-ed university in Saudi Arabia, in Taif city.
The message is that change is coming to all corners of the Kingdom, and that accomplished women will be appointed wherever they can best serve. It is obvious that Saudi Arabia is quickly changing, and that female leadership roles are growing and progressing in the private and public sectors. Saudis know this, but many non-Saudis have no idea how much our country has changed.
In the past 10 years, Saudi women have pushed for and achieved major reforms. They have been able to run and vote in elections. The second class of Saudi female parliamentarians, at a 20 percent quota of the appointed Parliament (the Shoura Council), has started serving its three-year term. Female tertiary education is at an all-time high.
Female employment has reached 34 percent, despite major economic difficulties due to the huge drop in oil prices in 2016 and several rounds of major layoffs. Women are given more training and chances to choose non-traditional jobs. They, along with male youths, are encouraged to pursue creativity and entrepreneurship.
Saudi women have pushed for and achieved major reforms. They have been able to run and vote in elections. The second class of Saudi female parliamentarians, at a 20 percent quota of the appointed Shoura Council, has started serving its three-year term. Female tertiary education is at an all-time high.
That said, Saudi women are still fighting to lift some guardianship laws, to define their age of maturity (21 for most activists), and to have the choice to drive. The recent steps taken, and the lack of controversy surrounding them, provide hope that society is finally ready for more fundamental change. That women can be seen to have equal abilities as men, and have government support, is essential.
This gives women the power to dream that they can reach their potential, be treated with the dignity allocated to all human beings, and be trusted to choose paths that help them lead a dignified life in whatever form they want. The Prophet’s wife, Sayditna Khadija, is an example of a working, powerful and ethical woman who had the tools to make the right decisions in her life. Saudi Arabia is admirably trying to raise a generation of Khadijas.
These appointments were very public acts by top decision-makers to show that Saudi women can lead, and can be trusted to lead. This is the realization of Vision 2030 and the National Transformation Program (NTP) 2020. These sweeping plans are about diversifying the Saudi economy and ensuring sustainability. Part of that is by optimizing female leaders to better serve their country, and to include women in the national march to progress.
People are still grappling with this change, and you still see some of the old stereotypes being bandied about, but they no longer hold true. Stronger Saudi women lead to a stronger Saudi future. We are eliminating many unjust attacks on the Kingdom by these appointments, but we are also sending a message to our young girls: We have the tools, and you too can choose to be like Khadija — ethical, Islamic, powerful, and a leader.
• Muna AbuSulayman is a well-known talk show host. She was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2004. In 2007, she became the first woman from Saudi Arabia to be appointed by the UN Development Program as a goodwill ambassador. She can be reached on Twitter @MunaAbuSulayman.