Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Our Economy, Our Women

What’s the relation between our women and the economy?
Last Saturday, I attended a heated debate about the government’s decision to allow women to run in the election to the new board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as similar elections in other cities.
This is the first time businesswomen get the right to be candidates, not just voters. I thought this was a historical, but overdue step. It defies logic that 15,000 owners of Saudi businesses cannot be represented on the boards of trade organizations like the chambers of commerce and industry.
The same can be said of the boards of banks, companies and industries, where women make a sizable minority of shareholders and employees. Similarly, government ministries and departments, courts and religious scholars’ organizations, universities and schools all deal with constituencies of both sexes. Isn’t it absurd that even in the Department of Girl’s Education only men are in charge?
Some of the opponents are basing their objections on religious and cultural grounds. I told them: Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) worked for a businesswoman, his wife. He consulted another wife, Aisha on matters of state and religion, and told his companions to take half their religion from her. Why is it that, after 1400 years, women are not allowed to be at the level they reached then? If culture is the issue, it is wrong since it is in conflict with the principles of Islam.
As for experience and expertise, they come with training and practice. New generations of men go through this learning curve to reach higher positions, so why not our better half?
To help in this direction, we need to improve women’s education and training. Many fields, like engineering, accounting, and décor are still off limits to girls in public colleges, even though they are better school achievers than boys.
• Here is a comment on my last article “The Economic Boom: Our Second Chance!” from an American who taught and understood Saudi girls. I found it refreshing and enlightening to see one’s position from a different angle and with different eyes.
Let me quote her letter:
“I left Jeddah about two months ago and was living there for a little over a year. I have written to your e-mail correspondence a few time concerning women’s issues, but I think this issue about how to spend the money is just as, if not more, important. It is also relevant to the women’s issue.
Jeddah has turned into a giant mall and it’s very disappointing and sad. In the past, weren’t the best and most renowned educational centers in the Middle East based in Makkah and Madinah? Are not Arabs known for great educational achievements such as algebra and beautiful poetry? Well, it seems things have changed, and not because of bad financial times.
There should be large public libraries, good sporting facilities and top-notch learning facilities for everyone.
So as to not abandon my women I will speak to how this correlates directly to women. When young women have more to do with their days than go to the malls to spend money they haven’t earned, they themselves will gain a higher feeling of self-worth. This is much more important and preliminary to achieving a status that they seek in society.
I taught Saudi girls and it got very boring when all they had done over the weekend was to shop, meet at a cafe, or sit at home. What about scuba diving, sports leagues, book clubs, efficient technical institutes?
Of the hundred or so female students I taught, NOT ONE had ever scuba— dived. With one of the world’s most beautiful reefs at their fingertips, none were given the opportunity to take advantage of something people outside of the Kingdom can only drool over. At this point, society is telling Saudi women all they are worthy of is spending money.
Certainly, the men don’t have it much better. Therefore, it’s time to stop ignoring Saudi youth. Make investments in their future. Create a school system that allows them to compete in the world that looms like a tidal wave above them.
Of course, follow-through is just as important as the initiation. Provide them with facilities so they can be involved in healthy activities to make them well-rounded individuals. Then they can say, ‘This weekend? Hmm, where do I start’”.

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