Saudi women and the illusion of opportunity

A few days ago, Sumayya Jabarti was assigned editor-in-chief of the Saudi Gazette. This makes her the first woman in Saudi Arabia to hold such a position. Sumayya is a dear friend whom I’ve known for many years, and I always believed that her talent was underutilized and her potentials were continuously being stifled because she was a female. Men with half her talent reached higher positions in the media in a much shorter time. I am indeed happy for her. This is a well-deserved reward for her efforts and talents, and was long overdue.

One woman’s success, not every woman’s success

Women have had various senior positions in the media, but never the like. In Saudi Arabia, this is not only seen as a rise to a position in a corporate media sector; rather also as a government endorsement. To become editor-in-chief of a daily newspaper usually requires the approval of the Ministry of Information and Culture. As is the case in other cases where a woman takes on a position usually reserved for men, Sumayya’s appointment is seen as a small step in the journey towards equal treatment of women.

I had always wondered about the idea that assumes the success of one woman is a small success for all women. It seemed so unnatural to me. How is one woman connected to another? Why do we talk about women as belonging to one camp; hence considering the victory of one woman in that camp a victory for every woman in the same camp? I understand that many societies have drawn lines according to the physiological structures of our bodies; and have limited the entitlements of people with certain biological features – women – but that does not mean that we should do the same. Foundations of suppression and causes of oppression go much deeper than physiological differences; and proponents of rights should avoid looking at the world through a physiological lens; no matter how appealing and easy it is. One giant step for a womAn is NOT a step for womEn; not even a small step.

Glass ceiling or bottomless pit

Many supporters of women’s rights think otherwise. They believe that the success of one woman - even a small success - challenges prevailing perceptions about the capabilities of women to be in certain work places or socio/political positions. Women – they say – are sometimes unconsciously excluded from certain domains because men and women alike cannot even conceive a woman being there. This unconscious exclusion is sometimes called a glass ceiling. An unseen wall that is contrasted with brick walls placed in the path of women. Thus to have a woman actually being there creates a mental possibility that women can be in such positions. So having women cabinet members, women parliamentarians, women corporate leaders, women editors-in-chief et cetera serves to crack that glass ceiling and eventually bring it down.

One giant step for a womAn is NOT a step for womEn; not even a small step

Abdullah Hamidaddin

I believe that every woman who was able to break through it should feel extremely proud of herself; and I believe that it is our duty to applaud and her. Although she would not need that; she did not get to where she got by waiting for support and applause. But I cannot accept that this is a success for women. It may well be that something positive can come to other women when one woman breaks through the glass ceiling but that is too negligible to be celebrated. Actually I may go as far as saying that it is wrong to frame them as a success for women and to celebrate them as such.

Changing the way women are viewed

Breaking the glass ceiling for women is not about one woman getting the job; it is about changing the way women are viewed as sexual beings no matter how high they go. It is when sexual harassment ceases to be a man’s entitlement and becomes punishable by law. It is when a woman does not need to become a man, in order to be respected. It is about changing laws and cultures, not the demographics of women in the workforce. Second I believe that such celebrations sustain misogyny. They create the “illusion of opportunity” for women, and the myth of success and satisfaction amongst downtrodden women. Third it distracts us from looking at the plight of most women; which is being in bottomless pits without a glimpse of a ceiling; glass or brick. In Saudi Arabia – as in many communities around the world - the glass ceiling is a challenge for a fraction of women. Most women’s problems are about coming out of bottomless pits; the very concept of a glass ceiling is incomprehensible; even inconceivable because of the other sufferings they go through.

Having more women in leadership positions may look nice in photo ops and makes good public relations. But it does not always lead to improving the situation of the women of Saudi Arabia; nor elsewhere.

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Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:42 - GMT 06:42
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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