Amal Abdulaziz al-Hazzani
Saudi journalist

On International Women’s Day, How Are Saudi Women Doing?

It seems that women’s stories, throughout history, have always been enjoyable to tell, as they always have something strange, unique, and phenomenal about them.

Well, it seems that in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, we are greeting this day with extremely significant achievements; I could even go as far as saying that these achievements are unparalleled in any other country. This is for one clear reason: Saudi women were not afforded the opportunity to improve their conditions and enhance their social value gradually, as conditions have not granted them this luxury. The journey of women’s education began early on, since the reign of King Abdul Aziz, may God rest his soul, who founded the country, and it was fortified by royal decree during King Saud’s reign, and it became entrenched during the reign of King Faisal and became more expansive during the reigns of Kings Khalid and Fahd, may God have mercy on them all. However, it is over the past few decades that the path of education- the raw material needed for success- has seen qualitative shifts.

Many studies have dealt with Saudi women’s issues, as it is among the most pressing matters, traversing borders and garnering global public opinion’s attention. Why don’t Saudi women drive vehicles? Why do they have to ask permission for men to study or work? Where are their legal capacities? Who protects them on the street? Why were they crammed into the educational field and a few healthcare jobs while other doors are closed to them?

To be fair and to be more precise in weighing the balance, let us make some comparisons. Austrian women could not attend university until the early twenty-first century, and Western women didn't endeavor on the adventures of labor, the office and employment until society needed them to do so while men were busy with the world wars. We are not the only ones to have tightly constrained the path available to women and drawn a negative stereotypical image of women, as being of inferior merit and having less capacity for production than men. Rather, women have been treated as inferior to a man throughout history and across all cultures and civilizations, even at the best of times for women during the Germanic and Roman eras.

After military conflicts around the world cooled and the United Nations was formed, the latter began to pay special attention to major issues. At the top of the list were women’s issues, the ways to bridge gaps in various social structures and reform their human and social status and subsequently make use of their capabilities. In truth, however, all the successes that followed throughout the world have always been slow because women’s empowerment, in fact, goes against societal norms and dominant cultural patterns. This is evident even in countries like the United States of America; where a recent study found that during Sarah Palin’s 2008 vice-presidential run, more than half of the media’s coverage of the candidate covered her appearance and private life, not her electoral program or political competence.

As for the Arab world, a recent study in one Arab country found that about 40 percent of women refuse to take part in elections, neither as candidates nor as voters and that women are not suited for political engagement. This leads me to emphasize that Saudi women are fortunate that their status is an essential part of economic and social reforms. After decades of education, through King Abdullah Abdel Aziz’s political decision, Saudi women started to represent 20 percent of the Saudi Consultative Assembly of Saudi and were granted the right to vote and run for municipal councils. This was not compelled by social awareness but a political decision that surprised the world. Still, important steps on this issue required more enlightened stances and progress. They were encompassed within the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 launched by the young Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in 2016, and it included an array of reforms that address all facets of life. Within a few years, Saudi women entered the labor market, working in both the public and private sectors. The hindrances that had left them working only in education were removed. They rushed to work in every sector, equipped and encouraged by the national strategy of putting the half of society that had been idle back to work, based on merit and under the appropriate conditions.

King Salman bin Abdul Aziz issued decrees and shaped the framework for legislation that dealt with women’s right to be independent citizens with full legal rights instead of making claims and expressing wishes. Because of actions, Saudi women can compete for jobs in all sectors and on all levels, including leadership positions. As rational adults who know what they are doing, they have the right to travel and move around without anyone’s permission. Laws protecting them from harassment and violence were passed and violating them is punished with heavy mandatory sentences.

The Women’s Reports published by the World Bank a few days ago showed that Saudi Arabia women’s involvement in business and law progressed for the second year in a row, receiving a score that surpassed 70 percent. The criteria of the metric adopted by the report, which goes over the work environment, increased employment, childcare and transportation, gave the Kingdom a perfect score, except for wages, which in fact is an issue that women still decry across the world. Not bad, the whole world is working on improving women’s conditions, international institutions, states as well as women who are making demands.

We are certainly better off today than we had been before. However, Saudi Arabia nonetheless has a significant edge, as the political decisions being taken in the country break stereotypes that have marginalized women for decades, leaving women’s success dependent on aptitude and competence, not on the availability of opportunities. Opportunities were scarce, but today they are abundant. Yesterday’s concerns are of the past. It is true that we, as women, strive for more, but we are striving to achieve our ambitious aspirations within an environment that creates passion.

Saudi women see International Women’s Day differently, with a distinct feeling; conditions now allow them to compete for better positions and be genuine decision-making partners alongside their male brothers!