Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Aren’t Women “Saudi Society”?

Tuesday, 22 January 2008
By Sabria S Jawhar

Sometimes I wonder even if we, Saudis, know what Saudi society is. We speak of our society as if it includes men and women, but recent events tell me that when we speak of our society we are really talking only about men. It seems to me that some government officials need a crash course in what constitutes the Saudi society. The other day I read two news articles. The first one reported that women will be part of a new community police effort.
Soon afterward a second article appeared that said women won't participate in community policing because they are not qualified to handle weapons. Yet this same government official wants to develop a partnership with the community.
What now? Does he mean a partnership with the male community, because he just excluded the female population from his so-called partnership.
Saudis are under immense international pressure to give women equal rights, but we automatically take a defensive position on these matters and rarely think things through. There is nothing that would prevent this government official from developing his community policing plan to establish a weapons training program for women.
And if he can't bring himself to arm women (and honestly, after his comments he should be afraid of arming them), then find a role for them that is acceptable to his male sensibilities.
One obvious example of our defensive posture is the recent United Nations committee hearing on women's rights held earlier this week in Geneva. Rather than acknowledge our shortcomings and our plans to bring greater equality to women, we tell the skeptical committee members that women have many rights in Saudi Arabia
I don't think the UN committee members are stupid. They know the difference between men and women and surely noticed that three-quarters of the Saudi delegation were men and that one-third were women who were supposed to represent me but I don't know based on what.
Any woman who tells an international body of human rights experts that she has total freedom because her husband lets her should have her head examined. Believe it or not, some people don't think that's freedom.
Didn't we learn from the criticism we received three years ago for excluding women from voting in municipal elections? Shouldn't that have taught us something about equal rights, or did we fall in love with the idea of being the international media's whipping boy for our human rights record?
Which brings me back to our concept of Saudi society. It almost seems that Saudi officials are possessed with the idea of creating an unseen enemy called the Saudi society to delay or deny women their rights.
Which society are we talking about? The entire society of men and women or just men. I suggest devoting a portion of the upcoming National Dialogue forum to discussing what we mean by Saudi society.
What are the factors that determine the ideology in introducing new concepts that lead to rapid social change? These issues are crucial if we want to have a healthy and compatible society.
Let me put it this way. We are in the habit of sending up test balloons to determine what is acceptable in Saudi society and what is not.
Remember when the Ministry of Labor announced that women would be allowed to work in lingerie shops? Well, apparently, Saudi society didn't approve of that announcement so the order has since been stalled.
But you'll also remember the announcement concerning the permissibility of camera phones. No outrage there, so they became legal.
Feelers are sent out by the government about women's right to drive. Ouf! Outrage (from male members of our society). So women still can't drive. Remember when it was announced that Saudi citizens may vote in municipal elections? But someone forgot that Saudi women are citizens.
More outrage (from men). So we didn't vote. Apparently we are not full citizens. Here's where a society based on codified laws with a strong sense of what our society is comes into play.
Khadija Bint Khuwailed, the Businesswomen's Center at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, announced recently that a study by IPSOS Center for Public Opinion found that 58 percent of private businesses complained about some government establishments objecting to women working in the private sector. One such government entity is the Commission of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
The study found that members of the commission repeatedly visit private businesses in what is perceived as threat to their female employees. The commission apparently represents Saudi society, or at least a portion of it because it doesn't represent me when it comes to that.
Saleh Al-Turki, head of the members board of the JCC, said that women play a vital role in boosting economic competition and growth since 70 percent of the unemployed men in the Saudi Arabia are under-qualified while 66 percent of the unemployed women are highly qualified but have few job opportunities.
Al-Turki said that women make up 14 percent of the Saudi workforce, putting it at the bottom of all Arab countries in employing women. In Kuwait, women make up 50 percent of the workforce.
We need to re-examine our priorities of what Saudi society is and we should make up our minds whether women are part of that society.
I think I am part of the society but the people who control my life and the lives of other women apparently don't feel the same way. I want to know who they are and where they stand when they are determining my future.

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