Focus and continuity are among the most important things people learn in their personal and professional lives. The appointment, for the first time, of three Saudi women as mayors — a public position with responsibilities directly affecting people’s lives — means continuity for the change project. If Saudi Arabia continues its development journey it will, no doubt, have a prosperous future.
Focusing on a course of action and continuing in the same direction despite all the difficulties is always tricky. The appointment of the three Saudi women in these public positions is another big leap for Saudi Arabia’s conservative society, especially as the appointment came less than 10 weeks after women were granted the right to drive cars.
Legislation, decisions, appointments, and an awareness campaign, in which clerics and intellectuals took part, were all part of the process of correcting a long legacy that protested against and disrupted women’s participation. Heading a municipality is a public position with significant social responsibilities in a male-dominated field. This is a major challenge for women and a bold step by the government, which has pledged its commitment to its promises and plans to increase women participation in the job market by a third.
In truth, we should also appreciate the efforts of men in this latest development, in particular, the men who dominate these departments and are now supporting the newly-appointed women mayors in performing their duties. Heading a municipality is an unusual and difficult job for a woman, even in liberated societies that celebrated such achievements decades ago.
The focus to which I am referring goes far beyond allowing women to drive cars, even though this is an important step that will, in time, change the lives of millions of women and improve the incomes of about a million families. There are a number of fields in which changes are being made regarding the contribution of women. Some of them are like propaganda — such as issuing licenses for five female Saudi pilots — while others are happening quietly, without a media fuss. For example, in the Ministry of Justice, 521 female Saudi lawyers trained alongside 650 men, and we have also suddenly started to see women working in airports, malls, private companies and some government departments.
In my opinion, the challenge facing the government in the process of imposing change lies in the fact that it is obliged to focus on the feminization of the workforce through supreme decisions, and not only by encouraging men to give women a chance at their workplaces, because many of them are not yet ready or convinced.
The government is leading this project as part of its development plan, Vision 2030, while at the same time walking a tightrope as it tries to strike a balance between those who are eager for change and those who want to disrupt it.
These changes will not succeed unless they are embraced by society as a whole, as they are not only social reforms but are improving conditions for families and women. The real issues at stake here are the ability of these reforms to continue (their sustainability) and win the acceptance and support of everyone — not only one segment of society — as well as their economic returns.
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