Sunday, February 19, 2006

Saudi Women, Opportunities and the Road Ahead

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

The 20-member group of intellectuals who went before the visit of King Abdullah to China consisted mostly of women. One of them, Aljohrah Alsodairy (23), spoke fluent Chinese. They made waves and charmed the Chinese with their excellent quality and positive attitude.
Reem Al-Faisal, world-class photographer, was in China three months ago, hobbling from one town to another, six in all, in the Yunnan Province, south of China to show her Haj photo collection. In the last decade, she showed her talent in at least ten cities in Europe, Asia and the Arab world. Her work was published and praised in prominent journals like Le Monde, Le Figaro, The Guardian, Liberation, Canvas and Marie Claire.
The Seventh Jeddah Economic Forum has just ended. More than 2,700 delegates attended. About a fourth were women, mostly Saudi. Most organizers and welcoming committees were college girls. The presence of women in business, media and academia was very much felt and appreciated. Effat College for girls alone provided tens of young organizers.
Etimad Abdulaziz Al-Noaim is a young Saudi journalist. This was her first assignment. She did extraordinarily well. In a matter of three days she was transformed from a shy girl to a confident professional woman. Her writing and communication talents shined all of a sudden. Her enthusiasm was contagious. She will never forget this opportunity.
Ranya Bajsair is the coordinator of the Foreign Relations Committee at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI), the forum organizer. Trained in Swiss schools for eleven years, fluent in three languages, and a holder of a Master’s degree in business administration, Ranya was responsible for the VIP stage room. Ranya prepared note speakers before they faced the audience and made a great impression.
Rajaa Alsanae, the young girl who wrote the controversial, best-seller novel, “The Girls of Riyadh,” was in town discussing her book with readers, men and women, old and young. She was treated like the respected intellectual she is, not a scandalous novelist, as some critics depicted her for describing the secret lives of four high-class young girls. All characters, of both sexes, were shown as victims of the known but adamantly denied ills of our society.
These ills include the way we regard and treat our better halves as dependents, not equal partners. Because of such an attitude, too many of us have not cared much to let our girls independently develop their character, education, skills and careers.
Our social, educational, legal, political and civil systems were designed in a way that made it harder for talented, aspiring and independent women to make their presence, contribution and partnership in the development of their nation. How could a woman make it to the top, if her education and training options are so limited, work environment so restricted, and job opportunities so few?
Rajaa visited the Khadija bint Khuwailed Women Center at the JCCI. She was warmly greeted and encouraged by three elected and appointed female board members: Madawi Alhasoon, Lama Al-Suleiman and Olfat Al-Kabbani. Dr. Nadia Baeshen, the center’s founder and manger, explained to us how education and training figured in their pioneering project. In the job market of today, only the better skilled and well prepared can compete. Computer, foreign languages, communication skills are among the highest in demand. It was not by chance that the center provides intensive, updated and advanced training courses in these areas.
What do these events have in common? They are all about women empowerment. I am more optimistic today than any time in our recent history about women’s place in our society. We made surprisingly smooth and successful steps down this road. King Abdullah made it a mark of his reign to give women their voice, space and opportunities. They seem to get the message and move ahead in sure, if not fast, steps to claim their rights. We have been waiting for the opening of this window for a long, long time. Wasting it is not an option.

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