Sabria S. Jawhar
It’s with a great deal of satisfaction that I see that Dr. Fatimah Abdullah Al-Saleem has been appointed cultural attaché at the Saudi Embassy in Canada by the Ministry of Higher Education.
The appointment of Dr. Fatimah, who has a Ph.D from the American University in Washington D.C. and has taught at the King Saud University for nearly 30 years, makes perfect sense on many levels.She comes to Canada, which is experiencing the growing pains of a thriving and active Muslim population.
There are an estimated 750,000 Muslims living in Canada with projections to hit about 1.4 million Muslims in the country by 2017. In addition, there are more than three-quarters of a million international students studying in the country, a large percentage represented by Saudi undergrad and graduate students.
When I say growing pains what I mean that in the post-9/11 climate Muslims in general and Saudis in particular have come under mounting criticism for their perceived inability to assimilate into Canadian society. Canada, as a rule, has perhaps been the most welcoming of any Western nation to Saudis and Muslim immigrants.
But the alleged killing of a 16-year-old Muslim girl by her father over her Western lifestyle over a year ago and the recent high-profile terrorism case have put many non-Muslim Canadians on edge.While it’s not Saudi Arabia’s role in Canada to deal with all Islamic issues, the appointment of Dr. Fatimah signals sensitivity by the Saudi government to put a female voice to issues affecting Saudis, and perhaps by extension, to the Muslim population in general.
I am certain that other Arab and Asian embassies have female cultural attaches. Yet, given the large number of Saudis living in Canada, Dr. Fatimah’s presence can provide valuable influence to them, especially young Saudi women away from their families. She can also do much to shed myths and stereotypes of the silly notion that all Saudi women are subservient to men.But before I jump up and down like a spoiled teenager buying her first Prada bag, a reality check is in order.
Dr. Fatimah’s appointment is in keeping with King Abdullah’s wish to give women more prominent roles in Saudi society and to represent our society in a more public manner. An assignment as a cultural attaché is a fine first step, but it doesn’t rank as a key position in Saudi diplomacy.
The danger I see is that such appointments could become just so much window-dressing.Foreign diplomats are trained professionals and are not clueless. If it is perceived that a Saudi female diplomat is no more than a figurehead or a goodwill ambassador trotted out for social occasions then the Saudi government’s efforts to shed its image as an oppressor of Saudi women will be seen for what it is and fail.Remember a year ago when the Saudi government sent a delegation of men and women to face questions from the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women?One prominent Saudi woman told the committee that, “We can travel on our own. For instance, for me, I have permission from my husband, so I can move freely and go wherever I want.”
The reaction, to say the least, was less than enthusiastic and did much to hold Saudi Arabia up to ridicule. It doesn’t mean that male guardianship should be taken lightly or ignored. That’s not the issue here. But the incident revealed that an attempt at window-dressing can backfire.Dr. Fatimah, I would imagine, is her own woman and more than likely does not suffer fools gladly. She would not be in her position today if she were a softie. As long as she is allowed to do her job and the powers that be in the Canadian Embassy give her the latitude she requires, then this appointment is a vital first step toward giving Saudi women the high-profile voice Saudi Arabia so desperately needs.