From the height of her still young years, Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai opined: “When God created man and woman, he was thinking, ‘Who shall I give the power to, to give birth to the next human being?’ And God chose woman. And this is the big evidence that women are powerful.”
I could not have said it better myself. Mothers have always been the anchor of our families; everywhere they show an incredible ability and selflessness in caring for and educating the children that will become the future of our societies. Mothers are fully committed to this most important role in humanity, yet that role is only the tip of the mountain, for they obviously possess all other human qualities equally ascribed to man and woman.
The question then is why is it that even in the most progressive countries today we still do not feel that women have equal footing with men in every aspect of society?
I am no official scholar of gender equality but when I look at the history of humanity, I see positions of power and authority developing as groups of humans faced each other and fought over finite resources. It is here that the biological development of men and women led to separating their positions in society as in much of the animal world, on the basis of simple muscles and raw power.
Men and women possessed the same brains and intelligence, but the male grasped the upper hand and held on to it merely through the more muscular structure of his body. What is history of man if not the history of subjugation through raw power? What is more surprising to me is that this division has prevailed for so long, lasting well into an age where there should no longer be any question as to the equality of women and men. This may appear more prominent in some traditional societies, but it remains true across the planet.
Let us consider the women of Saudi Arabia and how their role has evolved over the past century. At the birth of our country, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in 1932, women retained a very powerful role, albeit largely restricted to that of uncontested ruler of the home. The household was hers and its decisions belonged to her, as did its duties, which in the 1930s filled almost every waking hour.
Growing up myself in a mud house in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s, our life was not so different from our Bedouin predecessors: We had no particular amenities, comforts or modern devices to ease any of the chores. There were very few cars, no electricity, no running water, meaning the tasks of the household were immense and required not only a fully committed mother but also one or more helpers, or, to put it bluntly, sheep labor.
Our poetry and the Quran affirm the importance and power of women, not least by including an entire surah called al-Nisa, the woman – there is no such surah pertaining exclusively to men. Let us not forget also that the Prophet’s wife herself was known as a shrewd businesswoman. The importance of women is even present in the everyday language of Saudi Arabia, with the name for Jeddah, the Kingdom’s second-largest city, itself derived from the Arabic word for grandmother, serving as one example.
While we Arabs often cite the saying of the Prophet “Al janna tahta aqdam al ummahat,” or “Paradise lies beneath the feet of our mothers,” we cannot be said to have honored it throughout our history.
We may have offered descriptive praise and comfort to women, but we had been very lacking in transforming those poetic descriptions into reality, mostly because the man’s foot was still on the brake. We were initially shy and fearful of allowing girls to go to school, until King Faisal’s wife Iffat established and initiated schools and colleges for girls and women. For a very long time, we must admit that women in Saudi Arabia were not afforded equality with men.
I would like to emphasize here that there is no such thing as giving women rights, for those rights are equal and intrinsic in every human being upon birth. Sadly, it is only the taking away of those rights that has existed, and, in Saudi Arabia, women could not drive, open bank accounts or even travel without a male guardian’s permission. Just imagine the humiliation of a woman depending on the young punk she raised to afford her permission to travel if her husband is no longer present.
I am happy to say that on all these points today’s leadership has lifted these long-lasting restrictions. We are going through a guided evolution in which we are no longer waiting for change to come, but actually rectifying laws in the sense of equality. The changes implemented over the last five years have been profound, and, from the darkest moment, where we could still perceive a shadow, we have now shone some light. Only by affording women full equality can we ensure that our country and therefore our men also reach their full potential.
By Gloria Steinem’s definition, “a feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men,” we should all be feminists today. We are getting there, and recent steps have been so well-designed and effective that our society is finally turning the page and we are joining forces. Women and men will advance side-by-side to build the promising future of our country.
For a long time, we have been missing out on 50 percent of innovation, of energy, and of talent. If we believe Margaret Thatcher, perhaps we have been missing out on even more, as she once said: “It may be the cock that crows, but it is the hen that lays the eggs,” by which she meant the same as when she noted that, “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.
Our fight today is thankfully no longer caught up in lifting old and unfair restrictions, instead it is today about changing ingrained habits. I would like to see every Saudi man stand up at the dinner table and express his awe and admiration of the women of his family, apologizing for being part of a system that held his mothers, wives, and daughters back for so long. This is how we build a country, a society, and the promise of a new generation.