Saudi Arabia: Emancipating a nation

Arab News
"When the outside world thinks of Saudi women there are two images that appear to characterize all of us without exclusion or exception. We are veiled and we don't drive." Article by Lubna Hussain.
I had a series of rather thought-provoking interviews and meetings last week that left me feeling somewhat encouraged and tentatively hopeful. It seems that my country is finally waking up to the fact that there are women within its borders. A rude awakening no doubt, but one that has far-reaching implications for all of us.
When the outside world thinks of Saudi women there are two images that appear to characterize all of us without exclusion or exception. We are veiled and we don't drive. I have always found such a stereotype exasperating in its superficial interpretation of our worth. I trudged through scores of articles printed in the international press whilst engaged in research pertaining to the elections and practically every single one of them referred to Saudi women as being "the only women in the region who are not allowed to drive" and that "they are forced to wear the veil". It really is disconcerting to think that we are defined by only two factors among a myriad of complications that are never alluded to. But what is it that Saudi women really want? Has anyone bothered to ask us what our vision is and how we conceptualize its implementation?

Islam has always afforded women rights. As long as 1,400 years ago, in this barren land, women were allowed to own property under the Shariah. They were given a status that allowed them to inherit legacies and exercise civil liberties that much of the world did not even dare to dream of until the beginning of the 20th century. The women's suffrage movement at the end of the last millennium demanded from the establishment some of the very freedoms Muslim women had been enjoying as part of their Islamic heritage for centuries. However, much of what has been seen and reported recently has been incorrectly ascribed to the religion and, if anything, has more to do with male dominance and cultural implications than with the egalitarian principles of the faith itself.

Our religion asserts that the act of seeking knowledge or pursuing education is one of the highest forms of worship. Might I add here, that there is no distinction of gender to which this tenet applies. There is a Hadith, or saying, of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, that states that in order to seek knowledge we must go as far as China. The advent of the Islamic faith propagated a level of academic progress, inquiry and achievement that went on to prompt the European Renaissance. It is evident that we have fallen far behind such noble aspirations in recent times, even though the quest for enhancement is such a pivotal and essential part of our faith.

I think that this is fundamentally what many Saudi women want. We would like to see a return to the wonderful privileges that have been presented to us through our religion. Most of us here have higher ideals than to get behind the steering wheel. We truly want to return to the driving seat and be able to exercise our unique Islamic rights in a manner that is congruent with our own sense of self. Such revisiting of our entitlement has many broader implications that society is still trying to come to terms with. For me, the most important aspect of this entire process is education. If we are expected to eventually constitute half of the employment ratio of our nation, then we must be equipped with the knowledge and skills that are integral to doing the job in the first place.

The whole concept of girls' education needs to be addressed and revamped with a more enlightened and radical approach. Our current standard of education is untenable internationally. Whereas most countries have joined in a global race toward academic excellence and superiority, we haven't even ventured toward the starting line yet. It is true that jobs have become available for women and there is a real opening up of opportunities here, which is a step in the right direction.

However, the sad fact is that even though many of the women I know here are more than capable of doing a good job, they are denied the chance because of their lack of pertinent qualifications. Even though the scope of careers is widening, there is still a lack of basic educational infrastructure to support its growth. Many of the choices that we have at our universities here are astonishingly limited and limiting. The realization that we have the ability and potential is simply not enough. Greater emphasis must be placed on more relevant and vocational based courses geared toward women. There has to be change. We need to move on.

Someone at the Ministry of Information asked me recently what it was that I felt would help our image in the outside world. It didn't take me a second to think. "Women," I said categorically. If we truly want to show that we are capable of progress and advancement and that we are willing to move forward at a pace that shows a commitment to change and reform, then we need to show the world the wonderfully strong women of our society. Yes we wear the veil and no, we don't drive, but that doesn't mean that we are regressive, backward and uninspired.

And for those in authority who may be reading this article, please remember: Educate a man and you liberate an individual, educate a woman and you emancipate a nation.

Lubna Hussain is a Saudi writer. She is based in Riyadh.

Originally published on Friday, 1, April, 2005 (21, Safar, 1426) in Arab News