Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

All I Want Is Equality with Girls: Gender and Social Change in the Twenty-First Century Gulf

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

All I Want Is Equality with Girls: Gender and Social Change in the Twenty-First Century Gulf

Article excerpt


In January 2004, Lubna Olayan stepped up to the lectern to deliver a speech to the Jeddah Economic Summit. She was a natural choice to be the first woman to address the forum in the Saudi port city because she headed one of Saudi Arabia's best-known conglomerates, the Olayan Financing Group. Lubna was a daughter of Sulayman Olayan, who had risen from humble circumstances to become one of Saudi Arabia's most successful businessmen. Yet the organizers of the conference might have rethought their decision to let her speak had they known what she would say and the controversy it would spawn. Throughout her speech, entitled "A Saudi Vision for Growth," Olayan outlined a vision of a Saudi Arabia that was at odds with what the kingdom's religious elites sought (and still seek) to project to the outside world. For nearly twenty years, they had rigidly enforced social norms that aimed to exclude women from virtually all public settings and to create a workforce that was overwhelmingly male, even if that meant importing thousands of expatriate workers. Instead, Olayan argued that any Saudi, "irrespective of gender," who was serious about working should have the opportunity to "find a job in the field for which he or she is best qualified."1 The reaction of the audience, which was composed of Saudi and foreign men and women, was enthusiastic and electric.

Olayan did not wear the full hijab (headscarf) and covering traditionally worn by women in Saudi Arabia in public settings. Pictures of her and other businesswomen, many of whom wore no veils and freely interacted with men in public, appeared on the front pages of Saudi newspapers. Olayan and her colleagues had broken social taboos and challenged the authority of Saudi religious elites.

It is not surprising that the reaction of these elites was one of profound shock and anger. The highest religious figure in the kingdom, Grand Mufti Shaykh Abd a-l Aziz bin Abdullah al-Shaykh, immediately released a statement in which he condemned the summit, especially the public mixing of men and women. He argued that such behavior was the "root" of every evil and catastrophe, along with the sins of decadence and adultery. He also expressed his bewilderment and sorrow that "such shameful behavior" could have ever taken place in Saudi Arabia. Although he did not mention Olayan or the conference organizers by name, he nonetheless made it clear that he felt that they should be reprimanded. The mixing of men and women, he said, "is highly punishable" and "prohibited for all."2

These were not idle threats. Fourteen years earlier, in November 1990, the government delivered swift retribution against 45 elite educated women who deliberately dismissed their drivers and drove through the streets of Riyadh-an act that at the time was legal under Saudi law but frowned upon by the religious establishment. The government immediately dismissed the women from their jobs, confiscated their passports, and sought to shame them and their families by labeling them infidels. Some were even forced into exile. It took years for the 45 women to regain their rights and privileges in Saudi life. To make clear how seriously the government had taken the act, it formally outlawed women from driving in the kingdom. Those women who contemplated driving would now face the wrath of both the state and the religious authorities. 3

Because Olayan had violated social taboos and challenged religious elites in the same way as the 45 female drivers, one would have expected the grand mufti's words to bring a swift retribution against her. Quite the opposite occurred: the Saudi government did not take action against Olayan, who has continued to this day to advocate for women's rights and to appear at home and abroad without the traditional Saudi covering and hijab.

This article seeks to explain how Ms. Olayan and other women in the Arab Gulf states have harnessed political, economic, and social changes since 2000 to alter their standing at home and abroad. …

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