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Saudi's first female minister cracks glass ceiling

Fayez says her appointment just the beginning for Saudi women

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Norah al-Fayez became the first woman to crack the glass ceiling in Saudi Arabia as the first-ever woman appointed to a ministerial position as part of the king's most dramatic move yet to modernize the political system and institute promised reforms by enacting sweeping cabinet changes.

The 52-year-old broke the gender barrier in the oil-rich kingdom Saturday when King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud appointed her deputy education minister for female education affairs, the most senior ever granted to a woman in the kingdom, but said this was only first crack in the glass ceiling.

"This is only the beginning and what is to come will be better," she told AlArabiya.net in an interview where she laid out her goals to modernize the educational system and better prepare students for the future.

"It is a medal of honor to all Saudi women and I am proud and thankful to his majesty for appointing me to this important post," said Fayez, adding that she is committed to improving the standards of girls' performance in school.

She said her appointment, on the doorstep of the king's powerful Council of Ministers, is important because it shows the king's commitment to enabling Saudi women to achieve higher standards of success and accomplishment, and giving her the chance to realize her personal goals.

With more than 15 years experience in administrative and educational supervision, Fayez said she plans to hit the ground running, emphasizing that she would work with a team of both men and women.

This is only the beginning and what is to come will be better. It is a medal of honor to all Saudi women and I am proud and thankful to his majesty for appointing me to this important post

Newly appointed deputy education minister Norah al-Fayez

Historic step

Analysts and commentators hailed Fayez's appointment as a historic step for the conservative, oil-rich monarchy, where women were denied the right to vote in the country's first-ever municipal elections in 2005 despite campaigning heavily for suffrage rights.

"These changes demonstrate that Saudi Arabia is in fact embarking on development on all fronts. Also the choice of the first female deputy minister opens the door to all Saudi women," wrote the editor-in-chief of the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat in an op-ed Sunday.

"What King Abdullah did was make real the promises he gave to his people since he came to power. Saudis were impatiently awaiting his decisions, and now he kept his promises."

Isobel Coleman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the forthcoming book Paradise Beneath Her Feet: Women and Reform in the Middle East, said the deputy position is an important one because educational reform is such a contentious issue in the kingdom, though it remains to be seen how much responsibility she will given.

"I think it's a very symbolic move," Coleman told AlArabiya.net. "The king has talked a lot about promoting women and improving situation for women in Saudi Arabia and this is an important move."

The king has talked a lot about promoting women and improving situation for women in Saudi Arabia and this is an important move

Isobel Coleman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

Confidence and experience

The move shows the 84-year-old king's intention to move toward naming more women to high leadership positions in the future, Fayez said, noting that her appointment shows the Abdullah's confidence in the ability of women to play a leadership role.

"This post is proof that the Saudi woman can enter the public arena and take matters into her own hands with a view to serving her community and society," she told AlArabiya.net, adding that Saudi women have received a boost in confidence from the king in a move she said was just the beginning.

Charged with overseeing education of Saudi girls from kindergarten to high school, Fayez said she is ready to take up the position and to begin work immediately.

"The main priority is to begin touring all the schools across the kingdom to assess each one and meet with the teaching staff, students and parents. The task is huge but I am confident that with persistent work we shall accomplish all that is needed," she said, noting that she plans to visit the kingdom's public schools to meet with parents and students and begin revamping the curriculum.

The mother of five graduated in sociology from King Saud University in 1978 and earned a master's degree in education from Utah State University in the United States in 1982.

She then worked in the education ministry, specializing in women's education, and administered private schools before moving to the country's Institute of Public Administration in 1993.

Among the other important cabinet shuffles were the ousting of the ultraconservative head of the religious police and the replacement a controversial senior judicial figure who condoned the killing of satellite station owners with a moderate who previously headed the Consultative Council.

These changes demonstrate that Saudi Arabia is in fact embarking on development on all fronts. Also the choice of the first female deputy minister opens the door to all Saudi women

Editor-in-chief of the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat