One year ago, I was approached to write an article in honor of Women's Day, March 8.
At the time, I never even knew there was a day dedicated to women. Exactly twelve months later, I am a guest at the State Department in Washington DC, celebrating women's day with first lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President Roza Otunbayeva of Kyrgyzstan (first woman president of a former Soviet Central Asian republic), Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia, Cherie Blair and twelve guests of honor, awarded for being heroines for various acts of courage in their home countries.
March 8 this year marked the 100th anniversary of Women's Day. I was one of the 100 women from around the world who were selected by US embassies in 100 countries to attend an intensive three-week program in the United States entitled, "Women As Political Leaders." Among the attendees were past, present and future women members of Parliament, and candidates running for heads of state, CEOs of companies across the globe, NGO and other national and domestic women leaders from every continent.
The program was more heartfelt for some women than it was to others. In the same way that religiousness, patriotism come in different degrees, so does feminism. I do not consider myself to be a feminist. However, I do believe that the world and politics could stand to be a tad more feminine. If there is one thing that was clear when I was in the UN in New York with all the greatest women leaders in the world, it is that women's rights are human rights, and no decent person can deny that human rights are, undeniably, what we all must strive to achieve. If not for believing in the true cause of human rights, at least to save face and be worthy of being called a “human being.”
Throughout the program, speakers from all around the globe and fellow-participants often asked me: "What is it that needs to be changed in Saudi Arabia? What is it that women want?" My answer was always the same: Education.
A change in our educational system is a must for our progress. Education on why education is important, and education on the world outside of the Middle East and North Africa in our schools, and education on financial management, education on tolerance and human rights, education on home management and "home economics."
Women who are taught from a young age that her education is truly not as important as her brother's education will suffer in the long run. Islam gave women explicit rights 1,400 years ago that women in the West only got at the beginning of the 20th century. Islam calls for women to work, inherit, and be financially independent. So what is the problem?
Throughout the years, the lack of women's basic rights in Saudi Arabia has proved to be somewhat of a mystery to the rest of the world. With time, articles such as " New Rights and challenges for Saudi Women" in the Time in 2009 and Katherine Zoepf's article in May 2010, "Talk of Women's Rights Divides Saudi Arabia" and Faiza Saleh Ambah 's article in 2010 in the Washington Post entitled "Saudi Women Rise in Defense of the Veil" all show that despite the fact that many Saudis would like more freedom in Saudi Arabia, there is evidence that many women do not want radical change.
After coming back from my trip and being inspired by the strength, courage and integrity of the women I met from all over the world, I began to intensely research reports and participating in social networks aimed at understanding the obstacles on the path of change in women's rights in Saudi Arabia. It saddened me to see that the percentage of women in the country who strive for obtaining simple rights such as the right to drive and travel independently is very low.
Social networks are filled with debates and arguments by women themselves, advocating for the system of female deprivation of basic rights to remain unchanged. What horrifies me even more is to see the weak arguments that these women and some men put forth, using the Holy Qur’an as their source of evidence that God has called for women to be treated as handicapped children. The latter is the last straw, since as we know, God could not have possibly said that human rights are to be violated. Let us be reasonable and logical in our progression as a nation, because, quite frankly, we are lurking behind the world.
Women have been opposing petitions calling for women to be able to drive in Saudi Arabia and instead there are petitions being circulated by an alarmingly large number of women entitled, "My Guardian Knows what is best for me" which, within two months, had collected more than 5,400 signatures.
In 2010, a public opinion poll in eight Muslim countries found that Saudi Arabia was the only country where the majority of women did not agree that women should be allowed to hold political office. Similarly, in the summer of 2010, 500 women addressed a letter to Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah asking him to save the country from the ambush of Westernized ideas regarding women and to uphold the ban on women driving and working with men.
Let us not continue to simply blame the men and our government for what we lack in basic rights. Our government is trying to help women progress in the country by providing scholarships for those who want to be educated abroad, and the Saudization law that calls for an increase in the employment of women. Unlike in many Western countries, women in Saudi Arabia enjoy equal pay as their men colleagues. However, as in a democracy, how can one change a system, in which the majority of the people reject positive and necessary change?
Bottom line is, we need to work on our education. We need to reform and promote a more modern and truly "Islamically informative" and not "radically Islamic" system in our schools. Otherwise, we will continue to move backward and not forward.
*Published in ARAB NEWS on Apr. 2