As the world celebrates International Women's Day, it is a good time to ask, how are Saudi women doing?
Stories of women throughout history tend to be dramatic and eventful because they often tell the tale of remarkable achievements.
Well, we in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are welcoming this day with achievements of some great caliber. I might even say that no other country can boast similar achievements in such a short time, and for good reason; Saudi women were not able to develop their status and societal value one step at a time as the circumstances did not allow for the luxury of a gradual journey. Women's education began early in the era of the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz to be further reinforced by a Royal Decree during the reign of King Saud, then consolidated during the reign of King Faisal, and broadened during the reigns of King Khalid and King Fahd, may they all rest in peace. Despite this lengthy journey, the past two decades have represented a quantum leap in education for women, which is the key to success across the board.
There has been much research devoted to the issue of Saudi women, which has crossed borders and captivated international public opinion. Why can't Saudi girls drive? Why do they have to ask permission from men to study or work? Why do they not have full legal capacity? Who protects them on the street? Why have they been limited to working only in education or somewhat in healthcare while the doors to other career paths were closed?
To be fair and more accurate in our comparison, women in Austria were only allowed to attend university in the early twentieth century, and women in the West only fully entered the labor market when they were required to fill positions in society left vacant by men who were off fighting in the world wars. Saudi Arabia is not the only country to have imposed a restrictive framework on women or negatively perceived them as less efficient and capable of production; throughout history and across cultures and civilizations, women have often been treated as inferior to men, even in the best of times during the reign of Germania and then the Roman era.
After the world wars subsided and the United Nations was formed, the latter began to pay special attention to important issues, and at the top of the list were women and how to bridge the gaps in various social systems to improve their status and utilize their capabilities. But the truth is, the reforms and gains that were made for women were always slow because empowering women means swimming against the current of society and the dominant cultural patterns. Even in a country like the United States, a recent study showed that during Sarah Palin's campaign for vice president in 2008, more than half of the media coverage she received was about her looks and private life, not her electoral platform or political competence.
In the Arab world, a study was published in one Arab country showing that about 40 percent of women refuse to participate in elections both as candidates or voters and that politics is not an appropriate field for women. This is what makes me underscore the fact that Saudi women are fortunate to be an essential part of the economic and social reforms. After decades of educating women, Saudi women, through a political decision from King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in 2011, came to represent 20 percent of the Shura Council, and gained the right to vote and run in municipal councils. This did not happen through an increase in social awareness, but rather, through a political decision, and it took the world by surprise. However, further reforms for women, which require bold and rational decisions, were included in the Kingdom's Vision 2030, which was launched by the young Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016. Vision 2030 aims to drive sweeping reform across all aspects of Saudi life. During the last few years, Saudi women entered the labor market, in both the public and private sectors, and previous restrictions that limited them to only work in education were shattered.
Instructions and decrees were issued by King Salman bin Abdulaziz, which led to legislations that directly affect women rights, stating that women are independent citizens with the right to full legal capacity and the right compete for jobs across sectors and at all levels, including leadership positions. Women now have the right to move freely and travel without anyone's permission. Laws were enacted to protect women from harassment and violence and carried heavy penalties for violators.
The World Bank issued a report recently titled Women, Business and the Law in 2021, showing Saudi Arabia's improvement for the second year in a row in business and law activities, with an overall increase of 70 percent in the WBL Index. The indicators adopted by the report include work environment, entrepreneurship, childcare and mobility, where the Kingdom received a full score in all of them. The weakest point, however, was related to the wage gap, which is a global issue that all women suffer from around the world. The whole world is working to improve the status of women; international institutions, governments, and women themselves, and we are certainly better today than we were before. But Saudi Arabia remains a special case, because a political decision has broken the social stereotyping that marginalized women for decades, making women's success dependent on their aptitude and competence and not on the availability of opportunities. Opportunities were once scarce, but today, they are ample. Yesterday, we were concerned with issues that are now resolved. It is true that we as women still aspire for more, but our aspirations are fostered in a rich and supportive environment.
International Women's Day feels different for Saudi women today, with a strong sense that conditions are ripe for us to accede to better positions as true partners alongside our male counterparts in development and decision-making.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.