High-flying pioneer

Examples of reform are happening in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but by most standards they are not enough. Arabian Business talks to the country’s first female pilot and a political activist about the pace of change in the conservative Kingdom.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  January 17, 2005

Saudi Arabia|~||~||~|Times are gradually changing in Saudi Arabia. To most outsiders, much of what goes on in the Kingdom is utterly foreign. The ultra-conservative country is battling with a number of issues, each with its own sense of urgency. On the one hand, the government and the ruling Al-Saud family have been, and continue to be, engaged in fighting what many term as homegrown terrorists largely affiliated with Al-Qaeda or subscribing to its mastermind, Osama Bin Laden. On the other hand, the upper echelons of the ruling family, in conjunction with some of the stronger personalities of Saudi society, have been trying to orchestrate change in a country where traditions sometimes precede the rule of law or directives of the government. This is particularly true regarding female equality. “When it comes to the issue of women’s rights, the cultural taboos are so profound, and the religious sensitivities so extreme, that the idea of a simple traditional/liberal divide on the issue doesn’t reflect the complex reality,” says John R. Bradley, a British journalist who has reported extensively from the Kingdom and is the author of a forthcoming book, Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis. “For instance, it was Interior Minister Prince Nayif — usually considered an arch-conservative and a reactionary — who personally made sure that women got their own ID cards. And I’m told the reason most women still do not have one is because the women themselves have objected to their faces being revealed in the photos on the cards. Here, customs matter much more than governmental initiatives.” So salient are those customs, that they received little or no attention until the 9/11 attacks on the US, when Saudi officials were forced to examine the growing strains of extremism within their society. One of those reasons is the high employment rate, unofficially 30%. Once officials confronted these numbers, the spotlight turned toward re-assessing the role of women in the workforce. Women in Saudi, who comprise half the 25 million-strong population, are not allowed in most workplaces. There are, of course, other reasons to support the inclusion of women in the various sectors of the society, such as increasing productivity and efficiency in the social and economic fabric of the country. Detractors of reform and women’s rights initiatives, largely from religious circles, have to a large extent stood in the way of change, but there is now a current swerving its way through the Kingdom with examples of change in the status quo. One such example was the hiring in November last year of the Kingdom's first female pilot, Captain Hanadi Hindiby Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin AbdulAziz Al-Saud, nephew of the ruling King Fahad. Prince Alwaleed is considered a liberal and a reformer. “I see the hiring of Capt. Hanadi Hindi to work at the Kingdom Holding Company’s fleet of private jets as a historic move for Saudi ladies. The move transcends the traditional role of Saudi women previously confined to working in the health, education and philanthropic sectors. I am in full support of Saudi ladies working in all fields,” Prince Alwaleed said at the time. Capt. Hindi, who has been striving to achieve her lifetime dream of becoming the first female Saudi pilot, is currently finishing an advanced flight-training programme and will be flying by the middle of this year. “Women are very capable of taking on any job previously monopolised by men,” says Hindi, adding that women can — if given the chance — excel within whatever career they happen to choose. “My interest in aviation and flying started five to six years ago. My father was instrumental in opening the path for me to achieve such a dream. It’s hard to achieve any of this without the support from my parents, especially since my father’s dream was to be a pilot,” says Hindi, who started taking her flying lessons in Jordan in 2002. “The situation in Saudi Arabia is changing and improving thanks to God, and I thank Prince Alwaleed for his support and for his support for every young girl and boy,” she adds. Hindi’s hiring stands in stark contrast to 14 years ago when on November 6, 1990, about 50 women, mostly academics, decided to get behind the wheel in the capital Riyadh to challenge the status quo in the Kingdom, where women are still not allowed to drive automobiles. Although there was no law in place at the time prohibiting women from driving, the defiant act completely backfired and lead to legislation officially imposing such a ban. The statement the women were making then did not sit well in a patriarchal society that adheres to Wahabism, a conservative and puritanical form of Islam that has been placed under the microscope since 9/11. Many have argued that the 18th century teachings of Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab, the founder of Wahabism, whose followers, the Muslim Brotherhood, have consistently backed the Al-Sauds since the Kingdom’s inception, continue to hold hostage the country’s progress into the 21st century, forcing women to play a subordinate role. Women are still not allowed to drive, travel without permission of a male guardian, and work or go to school in places that might bring them into contact with men. Sami Angawi, a Saudi architect from a prominent family in the coastal city of Jeddah, who is known as a social reformer in the Kingdom, believes the problem lies in antiquated traditions that essentially belong to another time. “The thinking of Muhammad Ibn Abdel Wahab and his followers is that of a village town, in the middle of a desert, a closed, limited environment. There is nothing wrong with this, and I don’t look down on them,” says Angawi. “But the fact is when you are in a village you think differently. [You have ideas that are] suitable exactly for that village or environment, but not for city life, like Mecca or Medina. The problem comes when you try to force your opinion on others, and tell them this is the only Islamic way to do things. What is suitable for a village is different from what is suitable for a town and this is how Islam is, it’s about ijtihad, (principles of Islamic jurisprudence). Muhammad Ibn Abdel Wahab was a good man, but what he came up with was good for his time, not suitable for this time,” he adds. Although times may be changing for women, Angawi and others say the pace of change is too slow. The biggest indication of this he says, is that women, who thought they would be able to run in Saudi Arabia’s municipal elections next year, have now been sidelined and not allowed to vote or participate. The elections are considered to be the most difficult element of the government’s efforts to introduce political reforms in the Kingdom. “Because of this, I will not participate in the elections. If women are allowed to vote then I will vote, if they’re not allowed to vote then I will not vote,” says Angawi. Nadia Bakhurji, the first woman to announce she would be running for municipal elections when the dates were revealed, agrees things could be a great deal better, yet she is cautious to point out that while change is healthy, it needs to be followed through carefully. “There are people who truly believe deep down to the bottom of their soul that the way they think and behave is the right way, so you can imagine when you have people who don’t think that way, there is going to be a struggle,” says Bakhurji, who was forced to step down about a month later when female participation was revoked. “But I believe the wheel that moves forward will move forward no matter what the obstacles are. We have to think very carefully what is appropriate for us within our traditions and religion, because what might suite other cultures might not suite us,” she adds. It’s dangerous to oversimplify the situation, says Bakhurji, a 37-year-old architect and mother to two children. “Yes, times are changing. They have been for sometime but very slowly which is normal and natural,” she says. Compared to the rest of the world and the development achieved over the past two centuries, Saudi Arabia is actually moving very quickly, says Bakhurji. She explains, “It’s because we have to catch up in a short space of time, in terms of accomplishments for women and other things.” Still, with unofficial unemployment figures of 30% and a large expatriate labour force, Bakhurji and other Saudis feel the country has much to gain by allowing women a larger role in society. “The country needs to catch up economically with the rest of the world, and in order to do so, we have to emancipate women and give them more freedom of movement within the business sectors so they can contribute more positively towards building the economy,” she says. Approximately 55% of the country’s graduates are female, a figure that excludes women who receive an education abroad. A compelling reason for Saudi society to bring women into the economy is the government’s expenditure on education, which accounts for 27% of the budget, 55% of which is allocated for women, according to senior economists at the National Commercial Bank (NCB), the largest bank in Saudi Arabia. By some estimates, if women were allowed to work and if doors were open to them in various fields, they could replace one quarter of some of the five to seven million foreign workers in the country in five years time, reducing remittances by US$4 billion and increasing the GDP of Saudi Arabia by 6%, according to the NCB. Although half of the potential workforce is simply static, women actually control a substantial share of the wealth in the Kingdom and a good metric of that is the cash deposits in banks. Saudi women have around SR15 billion (US$4 billion) worth of deposits, about 10% of total deposits, and hold about 20% of mutual funds assets. There is no doubt that a dynamic struggle is taking place within the Kingdom, one that illustrates what optimists might term as an evolutionary change in the country, where traditional ways are being contested by Saudis in a more visible manner than 10 years ago. Whether those forces of change prevail remains to be seen.||**||

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