A gentle wind of change is blowing through the socio-economic and
gender mosaic of Saudi Arabia as the orthodox Islamic kingdom
opens up to women's education and allows them to find their
identity as professionals, says journalist-turned-politician
Louise, the wife of union minister Salman Khurshid, was part of a
six-member women's friendship delegation that visited Saudi Arabia
The focus of women's education, as Saudi Arabia Vice Minister of
Education Norah Abdullah Al Faiz told the delegation, was
"job-oriented", Khurshid said.
"Saudi Arabia's women are confident they would get berths in the
al-shura (Majlis al-shura), the consultative council of the king,
in the near future - may be in a decade," Louise told IANS in a
chat at her residence here.
The delegation was a soft diplomatic exercise to strengthen the
people-to-people contact between the two countries and offer
Indians a window to the changing Arab world after the signing of
the Riyadh declaration during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's
visit earlier this year.
The delegation consisted of Louise, Indraprastha College principal
Babli Moitra Saraf, academic and human rights activist Madhu
Kishwar, textile designer Madhu Rao Ayde, plastic surgeon Rashmi
Taneja and journalist-writer Nilofar Suhrawardy.
The delegation was invited by Faisal Hassan Trad, the ambassador
of Saudi Arabia to India, and the Saudi Journalists' Association.
The amity tour might be reciprocated by a follow-up visit by a
Saudi delegation to India next year when the Islamic kingdom led
by King Abdullah hosts an Arabian showcase in India to further
multilateral ties, she said.
"The idea behind the trip was to showcase the changing face of the
Saudi women, given the pre-conceived notion people have of Arabian
women as repressed, oppressed and subdued. I have to admit that I
was surprised because as an Indian, one tends to be sympathetic to
gender bias," she said.
"India has also been the target of some pre-conceived notions in
the West. We belong to a democracy and they follow the more
orthodox Wahabi tradition of Islam - in which men and women are
segregated in society. But it is quite clear that they have
progressed immensely in the last 10 years," she added.
The key factor in their progress is education, Louise said.
"We in India have been emphasising on education but the democratic
way of doing so is much longer; in the kingdom it is much easier,"
"The Saudi women have not officially thrown off the veil. The
restrictions still remain and the segregation of the sexes
persist, but since my political turf is a small village in Uttar
Pradesh known as Kayamganj (from where she had contested an
assembly election), I am not overtly perturbed," she added.
"Our women have complete freedom and yet both Hindu and Muslim
women in my constituency do not move without purdah. They are more
comfortable working at home," she said.
Louise said the delegation met some of the most "dynamic
instructors" at the Princess Noura Bint Abdulrahman Univerity for
Women, Prince Sultan University and entrepreneurs at the Ladies
Branch-Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
"We were invited to the Majlis-al-shura, the Islamic parliament,
which has no woman as member. But it has 12 women consultants who
are on the sub-committees in the capacity as advisers," she said.
The nature of entrepreneurship among Arab women is changing, she
"The women are usually wealthy because they inherit a share of
their father's property. Earlier, they invested in land and real
estate, but now they are diversifying. The women's chamber of
commerce helps them," she added.
The delegation visited the Human Rights Society which is working
against "minor weddings" in the villages. "Of the 40 members in
the society, 10 are women," she said.
The divorce rate is quite high "because the women are wealthy and
independent to an extent", she said.
"The Saudis have a new brief this time. They have to change the
face of Saudi education in six years - right from the village
level to education for both men and women," Louise said.
The delegation visited almost every key government facility in
Riyadh. They used the 'abaiyas', the traditional women head-dress
gifted to them, while visiting the al-shura and the souks
"But we could not move out of Riyadh to Jeddah or Dammam."
Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)