Last month’s appointment of a Saudi woman as Deputy Minister of Women’s Education – the first female appointment of its kind – is an encouraging development, one that may influence change and accelerate reform in Saudi Arabia.
Women are making strides in other sectors too. For example, the government has appointed a female dean at a university in Riyadh and one can find women who head departments in some Saudi hospitals.
Yet, there are still no women in political leadership positions in Saudi Arabia. So what will Nura Al Fayez’s appointment as Deputy Minister truly achieve? Can one Saudi woman lobby for the rest?
Al Fayez certainly has a difficult task ahead. She is expected to focus on women’s academic excellence, provide training programmes for women to develop appropriate skills for the job market and review issues that hinder women’s academic learning and quality of life. She is also expected to address requests to lift the ban on physical education for girls in schools and universities, provide better school facilities and build extra curriculum programmes in music and drama.
Yet, Saudi women’s expectations extend beyond the responsibilities of her post. Many hope she will exert pressure on the Shura Council, a consultative political organ which is the equivalent of a parliament but has limited legislative powers, to eliminate discrimination against women in the political arena and call for a quota for women in leadership positions.
In addition, Al Fayez will undoubtedly be pressured by many of the country’s reformers to demand that women be treated as equal citizens and be given equal opportunities to fulfil their dreams and aspirations.
The failure of Saudi Arabia to allow women into the political decision-making process has deprived the country of some of its best brains. While many believe that it will take yet another generation of Saudis to change the negative mindset against women, Al Fayez’s appointment suggests reform may be coming and the country’s women’s rights agenda is progressing.
The appointment of Al Fayez is a step in the right direction, and the country’s women are watching to see if Nura Al Fayez can make a difference.
Samar Fatany is a radio journalist in Saudi Arabia. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service and can be accessed at GCNews.