Girl power comes in many forms, like the powder puff girls (American cartoon), Jhansi Rani of India and all those women who excel at their specialized field at work or home. However the ultimate girl power is the power of the intellect. The shiniest jewel of them all was Shahrzad. The vizier’s daughter of Persian descent, who was educated in the field of science, philosophy, arts and accomplishments. The story goes that she was responsible for the famous tales in Thousand and One Arabian Nights.
This type of girl power, the power of the female intellect has been recognized in Saudi Arabia, a country with a population of 25.5 million people and that ranks as the third largest in the Middle East by land area. It is also the second largest oil producing and exporting country next to Russia. A beautiful country with deep oil reserves and even deeper culture and heritage.
For decades the West has accused Saudi Arabia of having a poor human rights record and is still being in the dark ages when it comes to the treatment of women. However change has been coming in small doses into the government and to the society as well.
The reforms or it could be called as a mild revolution started publicly in the year 2009. Saudi Arabia made history by appointing its first ever female minister, Nora bint Abdullah Al Fayez as deputy education minister. Also in the same year the first coeducational university was inaugurated, King Abdallah Science and Technology University (KAUST). At KAUST women and men can mix together without the women being veiled.
The Saudi society has also been seeing changes in womens fashion, in the form of bright colorful abayas. The women are venturing into more colorful and more glamorous abayas than the plain black abaya which was traditionally worn. All of this shows that the core mentality of Saudi society is changing.
However the most beautiful feather in the hat is the new Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman University (PNU). The world’s biggest, ultra modern ultra green university for women. It’s a $5.3 billion venture designed to be environmental and female friendly. The female students can make their way around the university on the shuttle monorail train or by electric buggies. There are colleges for kindergarten education, languages, pharmacy, medicine, dentistry, nursing, information technology and translation.
Taking advantage of the energy-saving technology, the campus buildings have been designed in a way that use sunlight as a source of light. The 40,000 square meters of solar paneling will provide 16 percent of power for campus heating and 18 percent for air-conditioning.
It also has two sports club, commercial malls, a conference centre, laboratories and three research centers for nanotechnology, information technology and bio-science. PNU has a solid-waste treatment plant, waste-water treatment facility, warehouses and maintenance workshops. The final attraction being the all girls sports city.
On the surface the kingdom has emerged into a more moderate and tolerant sovereign. However looking closer would reveal that all that glitters is not gold.
King Abdallah University of Science and Technology is located at a remote seaside location which is 50 miles north of Jeddah. The majority of the student body and faculty are made up of foreigners. The initial 800 students are from more than 60 countries and out of that only 100 Saudis. Out of this 100 one may wonder the percentage of females; it is presumed none, wonder why.
Women’s creativity and fashion is also curbed in Saudi Arabia. Many of those beautiful and colorful abayas worn by Saudi women have been confiscated by the Mutawwa (religious police) for being too eye catching. Saudi women are expected to be more like the original Ford T, alike and in black.
Then the biggest women’s university in the world, Princess Nora bint Abdallah University (PNU), has created state of the art transportation system so that the female faculty or students need not drive. For they assume, that if these females taste freedom within closed doors they might demand it in the open,
Religious conservatives aren’t threatened by the new university because it doesn’t violate two fundamental principles Saudi men held dear — gender-segregated education and the ban on women driving.
Also among the courses offered at PNU certain gender specific courses have been excluded, like engineering, media and law. Implying that these areas should be in the hands of men. Is it because they think that women cannot do justice to these sectors or perhaps they would.
Finance Minister, Ibrahim Al Assaf said at the inauguration ceremony that the University is a symbol of women’s education and women’s participation in the building of the nation. Its unclear if he meant building the nation from home or building the nation from the workplace. The transition from education to employment is extremely slow in the country and sometimes it doesn’t take place at all. Women comprise 58% of the kingdoms student body but only 14.4% of its national labor force. It has the lowest female employment compared to United Arab Emirates 59% Kuwait 42.5% and Qatar 36.5%.
In terms of educating the female child, Saudi Arabia is doing its share, but some section still feels that not enough is being done and womens rights are still overlooked.
Women are not allowed to vote in the municipal elections, which had been postponed from 2009 under the pretext that more time was needed to enable women to vote. The government did not define the term more time.
A necessity considered by women around the world, has not been granted to Saudi women. The right to drive. Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, but it is not against the law the Shariah, its just against the law of some men. The Mutawwa or the religious police detained a woman on May 22nd for driving on the streets of Riyadh, even though she was not breaking any law.
Why are women not given their rights? Why are women treated as perpetual minors in Saudi Arabia? It is not because of the religion of Islam. Islam granted the women their rights 1400 years ago, at a time when the world was undecided if the woman was the devil. Islam recognized girl power, way before the phrase was created. So if Saudi Arabia is an Islamic country, then it should be an example to the world.
Girl power in Saudi Arabia seems to be a mirage. Let’s hope the new generation of men and women make it a reality.