University Communications and Marketing
MSUB international master’s graduate sheds light on women’s equality and political participation in Saudi Arabia
January 31, 2014
Carmen Price, University Relations, 657-2243
MSU BILLINGS NEWS SERVICES — Born and raised in a country where women are bound by conservative and strict cultural norms, Faten Alharbi’s goal to become one of her country’s first female ambassadors is no small task.
Her aspirations are especially significant considering women in Saudi Arabia are forbidden to drive a car, and, until recently, hold political positions.
“Women should be able to contribute to government affairs and have the right to share in the process of decision making,” said Alharbi, a 31-year-old recent master’s graduate of public administration from Montana State University Billings.
“I want to be an agent of change for women’s equality in my country and recruit a generation of women who will be very qualified for government appointment,” she said.
When it comes to women’s rights, Saudi Arabia remains one of the most restrictive countries in the world. Women are subject to male—whether it is a father, husband or brother—supervision in all aspects of life, from leaving the house to leaving the country.
Escorted by her older brother, Alharbi arrived in the United States in 2010 to attend Seattle University through the King Abdullah Scholarship, a program that encourages Saudi students to pursue higher education abroad.
The siblings are just two of hundreds of thousands of Saudi students who have utilized the scholarship since the program’s inception in 2005, according to the Institute of International Education. Of these, more than 20 percent have been women.
Alharbi’s educational opportunity is a sheer contrast to that of her mother’s generation when only a small percentage of Saudi women were literate. It wasn’t until the 1960s that primary education was even an option for Saudi girls.
Decades later in 2005 the first women’s university was created. Not much later, in 2009, the country’s first gender-mixed university, the King Abdullah University, opened its doors. In all, the kingdom has built 30 new universities in the last decade.
In one generation, the kingdom has gone from one of the lowest literacy rates in the world to one of the highest.
The Arab world, Alharbi said, is at a pivotal threshold for women with her generation being on the frontline.
The overhaul of gender equality in Saudi Arabia the last few years has been historically monumental, such as when King Abdullah in 2011 gave women the right to vote and run for office in local elections starting in 2015.
And, less than a year ago, the king appointed 30 women to the previously all-male Shura Council — Saudi Arabia’s most influential political body.
Both occasions, Alharbi said, mark major steps in female participation in public life and politics. She is optimistic that such reforms will give women leverage to make political change for women’s equality.
Alharbi said that while her generation of Saudi women call for democracy and human rights, many assert their identity as Muslim women.
“It’s not that women can’t still value our culture, our religion,” Alharbi said. “Women are increasingly seeing a vision of the future that includes gender equality and social justice alongside our religion. It is possible for both to exist together.”
She said it’s about a good balance of their heritage and the modern world.
Alharbi clearly embraces both worlds—taking a lunch break from her master’s thesis work in January, she wears a bright pink t-shirt and her hair is loosely tied in a ponytail while preparing a typical Arabian lunch of lentil stew, hummus and round-bread.
Her computer screen nearby projects reminders of home with photo albums of Alharbi pictured with her mother and six sisters, all swathed in conservative black cloaks, known as abayas.
Although Alharbi chooses not to wear the abaya while in the United States, Muslim women are required by law to wear the garment in Saudi Arabia if they are in public areas.
Alharbi speaks of her deep admiration for her country. And, contrary to popular belief, Alharbi said she would prefer to wear her abaya while in public areas in Billings.
“I received too many bad looks and judgment when I first arrived in Billings so I stopped wearing it,” she said. “There is much misunderstanding that has been caused by one small group. That group doesn’t represent all of the Muslim population. The obvious issues of driving, male guardianship and the challenges of running our own businesses remain, but it is by no means a cultural prison.”
She points out that less than a century ago, women in the United States, and most other countries, were bound by similar societal and religious laws, such as requirements to be clothed from the neck down and not being able to fully participate in society.
“Still today women in America continue to fight for equal pay, equal representation in boardrooms and Congress, and the ability to make their own choices regarding their bodies,” she said.
Despite the decades of effort put forth by our mothers and grandmothers, pressures both subtle and overt are still exerted on women to conform to certain traditional stereotypes, she says.
Her master’s thesis sheds light on some of the causes that have delayed women’s political participation in the Middle East and the challenges they still face in their pursuit of equal rights. The goal of her research is to compare the differences between the policies in the U.S. and the Middle East in terms of gender equality and women’s political participation.
She discusses women’s past struggles in the United States and other parts of the world to receive voting rights and representation in government, just as she and her counterparts do today in Saudi Arabia.
“Our journeys are similar,” she said. “But, our country is very young in comparison.”
The 80-year-old oil-rich nation is emerging from the age-old restrictions of its once-nomadic culture, and Alharbi argues the kingdom is steadily accelerating in areas of social justice and gender equality.
All the evidence for the future of Saudi Arabian women can be found in the academic credentials and ambitions of the female students and young professionals of her generation, she said, pointing out that two-thirds of the Saudi population is under the age of 30.
Democracy in the Middle East, she says, is a controversial topic. But each step forward is one worth celebrating.
A century ago this year, Montana women achieved the right to vote. Two years later, in 1916, Montana Republican Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress.
In recognition of International Women’s History Month, Montana State University Billings Library will host a series of panel presentations and discussions highlighting notable women in history, like Rankin, as well as looking at the present focus among today’s female leaders and historians.
“Making Herstory: Honoring Global Achievements of Women Past and Present & Inspiring Change” is free and open to the public. The series will be held on March 11, 18 and 25 in the Liberal Arts Building, room 205.
The panel discussions will feature Dr. Jennifer Lynn; Dr. Ana Diaz; Joseph Bryan; Dr. Nisha Bellinger; Dr. Xia Chao; Dr. Reno Charette; Dr. Elena Petroska; Dr. Jennifer Scroggins; Dr. Lisa Kemmerer; Dr. Joy Honea and Krista Montague.
For more information, visit msubillings.edu/womenshistory
PHOTO ABOVE: Faten Alharbi