Tuesday, March 9, 2010

International Women's Day 2010--How are we doing in Saudi Arabia, and beyond?

On the occasion of International Women's Day March 8, 2010 a number of posts, articles, and news programs took stock of where women's rights are today around the globe, and what remains to be done to bridge the global gender gap, as well as those remaining in specific countries. Some bloggers in this corner of the blogosphere focused on women's driving or on hijab, as did Ahmed of Saudi Jeans, in his Today's Links for the 8th, with a video on the Saudi women's defiance 20 years ago of the ban on women driving. Susie of Arabia included the same video in a post on Susie's Big Adventure a few days ago, Video: Women Who Drove in 1990, and her March 8 post is on gender segregation in Saudi Arabia, Open Mouth, Insert Foot.

Eman of Saudiwoman's Weblog, consistently publishes on women's issues, as does Maha of  A Saudi Woman's Voice;  and, Sabria of Sabria's Out of the Box , and SGIME of Sand Gets In My Eyes often do.

Most national news organizations focused on their own country's activities for the day and on the challenges in their respective countries. Some did so in relation to the international context, citing the Global Gender Gap Index for their respective countries in relation to others, where Canada does well in Education and Health, and poorly on political and economic participation by women, and where the best country, Norway, still has a 18% difference between men and women, and where the bottom 4 spots are occupied by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Chad,  and Yemen ;  and the UN Millenium Human Development Goals, all of which are behind targeted timelines, but the Maternal-Child Health goal lags the farthest, suggesting priorities are elsewhere, despite "motherhood statements". The NYT has an interesting and comprehensive article on "The World's Best Countries for Women" by Economics Professor, Nancy Folbre.

The official International Women's Day site linked a number of articles on women from around the world from 2009's IWD. The ones that struck me most were: criticism of French MP Rachida Dati, a divorcee of Moroccan origin, and now single parent, returning to work 5 days after birth of her daughter in January, 2009; Fatemah Farag, Chief Editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm's English Edition, on Women: Why We Should Care; In hard times more US women try to sell their eggs; High prevalence of child brides in India--Study. Ayaan Hirsi Ali weighs in on the 100th Anniversary of International Women's Day with a celebration of the West (and its Empires), a lamentation of the East (particularly poverty and Islam), and a list of Saudi Arabia's  offenses: International Not-All-Women's Day.

This year, Saudi's Arab News laments the lack not only of women's rights in Saudi Arabia, but of any recognition of International Women's Day, A bleak picture. Last year the tone seemed more optimistic, if recognizing the challenges: Al-Jawhara to Saudi women: Do not accept half-solutions. However, I would like to take this opportunity to share an article I read last year, but which was in fact from 2003, on a conference held by the Arabisch Nederlandse Vrouwen Kring Organization and sponsored by Saudi Aramco, on the achievements and contributions to their society by Saudi women, which included many Saudi women leaders in their fields--physicians, media personalities, business women, artists, and a poet [pictures added to the article by me]:

Monday, May 05, 2003 / 4 Rabi` al-Awwal 1424

Saudi Women’s Role in Building Bridges
Nimah Ismail Nawwab, Special to Arab News

Unraveling some of the mysteries surrounding Saudi women and producing a better
understanding of them and their culture was the theme of a recent meeting in Europe. Entitled the “Saudi-Dutch Cultural Gathering,” it was organized by the Dutch Arab Society, the Arabisch
Nederlandse Vrouwen Kring (ANVK) and co-sponsored by Saudi Aramco through its Aramco
Overseas Company (AOC) offices in Leiden headed by Managing Director Abdalhafidh

A number of Saudi women spoke to the group with the aim of building bridges between East and
West through the exchange of ideas and through information on cultural, societal and historical
issues. Among the 170 people attending were the Dutch Ambassador to Riyadh, Paul Lagendijk,
the Saudi Ambassador to Holland, Waleed El-Khereiji, other ambassadors and diplomats,
museum directors and various interested individuals.

Then Saudi Ambassador to the Netherlands, His Excellency Waleed El-Khereiji

The gathering began with keynote addresses by ANVK President Dr. Tamador Meihuizen-
Hassoun and Abdullatif Al-Othman, executive director of Saudi Aramco Affairs.

Abdullatif Al-Othman referred to the historic links between Saudi Arabia and Holland and Saudi
Aramco’s 50-year link with Europe through its AOC affiliate office. Ambassador Lagendijk
stressed the importance of the meeting. “For some time the gap between the West and the
Islamic world has not been narrowing but widening. Many misconceptions exist about Saudi
Arabia and these need to be addressed. This meeting can contribute to greater understanding on
both sides,” he said.

Presentations were made on the role of Saudi women in medicine, education, banking, media,
art, photography and literature. The presenters included Dr. Amal Badreldin, Samia Al-Edrisi,
Nimah Nawwab, Madeha Al-Ajroush and Dr. Thuraya Al-Arrayed, who shared their personal
experiences with the audience.

Dr. Amal Badreldin, one of the first Saudi women doctors, began with a short introduction to
Saudi Arabia, citing educational statistics and women’s participation in the medical profession.
She spoke of how health care in the Kingdom had evolved.

“In the past it was a combination of natural healing using traditional remedies and natural herbs found in the local environment. Branches, for example, were used as splints for broken bones. As the country developed, so did its health care. When I was a child growing up in Makkah, there was one dispensary with only one doctor in the entire city.”

Dr. Amal said that the Ministry of Health as of 2000 employed more than 1,200 women doctors,
including 441 general practitioners, 218 dentists, 198 obstetricians and gynecologists, 163
pediatricians, 50 internists and 23 general surgeons.

The challenges that women face were addressed by Samia Al-Edrisi, a Saudi businesswoman
from Dhahran. She said that women should change education from a tool of social control to one
of individual empowerment and opportunity. She mentioned the rapid increase in educated
women during the boom years of the 1970s and 1980s, and said that university enrolment for
women increased 132 percent in the 1980s.

Referring to recent statistics, Samia pointed out, “The figures speak for themselves but do not
really reveal the passion that I have personally witnessed. This passion drives the young women
of my country to excel and succeed. We women, however, despite our passion and the obstacles
still before us, have to teach ourselves the importance of patience. We should remember that less than 50 years ago most of our mothers could neither read nor write. We have surely come a long way.”

Saudi journalist and poet, Nimah Nawwab

The role of Saudi women in the media was explained by Nimah Nawwab who deals primarily with
a Western audience. She detailed the challenges, the need for media associations and
specialized university courses in publishing, layout and the media. She addressed an important
point that is often written about — change: “In Saudi Arabia, cultural change is slowly gaining
acceptance. The media affects all walks of life and influences women in many ways.”

“The media affects all walks of public life and serves to influence women in many ways. As with
all types of evolution, there are those who feel that the negatives outweigh the positives and may resist such change,” Nimah said. “The general feeling is that such change cannot be forced, and its natural realization serves to make it more acceptable, whereas an enforced change that may be seen as coming from an outside influence will hurt society in untold and unexpected ways. The change also has to resonate with what the society itself wants, and not with what others perceive it needs, or coercively wish to impose on it,” she added.

The meeting also featured a slide presentation by the photographer Madeha Al-Ajroush. Among
other things, she showed murals and how they reflect the communal work of women in the
Kingdom’s southwest, natural dyes and paints used in early paintings, weaving and textiles,
patterns commonly used and their significance. The presentation concluded with a review of
contemporary art and how communal tribal artistic themes and the environment affect artists.

Madeha went on to discuss the role of photographers. She commented, “My work takes a
feminist point of view, but in order to present it, I found myself photographing women wearing
traditional clothes living in mud houses leading very traditional lives. The contradictions are
obvious and indicate that my link to my country is stronger than to my tribe.”

The photographs were followed by a presentation on women’s contribution to literature by Dr.
Thuraya Al-Arrayed, a famous poet. “Compared to the past,” she said, “the present is rich and
varied, with more authors, more books published and an acceptance of different styles which
leads to more publishing opportunities. It is a scene of colorful coexistence: The classical and the modern and the ultra-modern have no problem finding their reading public.”

Dr. Thuraya concluded with a recitation of one of her own poems, first in Arabic and then in

Dr Thuraya Al-Arrayed, consultant for Saudi Aramco and poet, with her husband business Dr. Abdallah E. Dabbagh, photographed in Portland, Oregon at a trade conference dinner, by Jackie Ricciardi

There was also a presentation highlighting various cultural aspects of the Kingdom’s regions.
Munirah Al-Ashgar showed a video and delighted the audience by presenting young Saudi girls
dressed in the elaborate costumes and bridal jewelry of the Hijaz, the Asir and the Eastern
Province of Saudi Arabia. There was in addition an exhibition of prominent Saudi women artists
such as Safeya Binzager, Maha Malluh and Fatima Bouhazza.

At the meeting’s conclusion, Gerben Meihuizen, the former Dutch ambassador to Saudi Arabia,
commented, “Arab women are very conscious of the value of their rich and glorious past and of
their own traditions. These traditions need not block their more active participation in society, to the benefit of their own countries and to that of the Arab and Islamic world in general.”

The same conference was reported on in the Arabian Sun, with 2 pictures; and in Saudi Aramco Expats. The ANVK provides a slide show of  7 slides from the event, here.

The presentations by the Saudi women all sound excellent, and emphasized how far in terms of education and career opportunities Saudi women have come in the last 50 years. The closing quote from Gerben Meihuizen, the former Dutch ambassador to Saudi Arabia, bears repeating: “Arab women are very conscious of the value of their rich and glorious past and of their own traditions. These traditions need not block their more active participation in society, to the benefit of their own countries and to that of the Arab and Islamic world in general.”

Nimah Nawwab, at a different function

What have been your experiences of International Women's Day, past or present?
How well is your own country doing in your opinion?
What aspect strikes you the most from the articles linked?
Which contribution by a woman to Saudi society do you value most?
What contributions do not so famous women make?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?


Susanne said...

I am so not informed of these things until I read them here. I didn't even know about IWD. Thank you for keeping us up-to-date on things like this, Chiara! Your blog is quite enjoyable. :)

coolred38 said...

What contributions do not so famous women make?

They are born, live, and die under continued harsh conditions inflicted on them by the male species...the very ones that gave birth to them. The contribution they make is to still love these men even when tears, heartache, and abuse is all they get in return.

Chiara said...

Susanne--Thank you! I am taking that as a British "quite" and not an American one! LOL :)

Coolred--Thank you for your definition. Hopefully others will add theirs, and do a little balancing act with you! :)

Susanne said...

Chiara, that's so funny what you wrote about "quite." I hesitated to use it because often how I use it is different than how others use it. My northern US friends said it meant something different to them. I was hoping when I wrote it that you would interpret it the better way. I just didn't know that way was British. :)

Going along with Coolred's comment, not-so-famous women are unsung heroes. I believe God will exalt them for their selfless acts and kindness. Maybe not now, but in eternity.

Chiara said...

Susanne--yes, English in the South has a number of Britishisms that the Yanks lost, as well as influences from the French language even beyond Louisiana. When I read Flannery O'Connor I had to guess by context at what a chiffe-robe was, until I was discussing dialects with a colleague originally from Arkansas and whose mother has a French maiden name. Then it became obvious to me.

He was able to rhyme off a bunch of other words that are from the French. And a colleague from Atlanta gives a talk where gives the local pronunciations of Lafayetteville, and Vienna (Lafeetvil; and Veye-eena). :)

I agree that most women and (men) are not famous but are a credit to themselves and to their gender. And then there are the others... LOL :)


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