In Saudi Arabia, a Women's Ministry Might Be a Small Step Towards Women's Rights

The talk of establishing a Ministry of Women's Affairs in Saudi Arabia raises exciting possibilities for Saudi women, particularly businesswomen who need unfettered access to the international business community. Yet the proposal could lead to further marginalization of Saudi women.

The idea of a governmental women's department may sound quaint in the 21st century. Indeed, the proposal to some may smack of further segregation and marginalization of Saudi women. But in Saudi Arabia, there is no such thing as a bold move or a grand plan. Every progressive step comes in the smallest increments. Progressive Saudis float a balloon of an idea and if the conservatives pop it with enough vocal outrage, the idea disappears. A women's ministry, however, may calm the fears of conservatives but still accomplish the goal of giving Saudi women the political influence they desperately need to solve the many inequities in Saudi society.

Dr. Basmah Umayr, the executive director of Al-Sayyidah Khadijah Bint Khuwaylid Center at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that a Ministry of Women's Affairs would contribute to "the transportation of women to (the level) of decision-making."

She added that, "Globally, we found upon studying the situation that many developed countries still reserve as a ministry for women. Women's affairs are limitless, and there are many issues related to them." Turkey, Italy and France have similar ministries dedicated to women and family issues.

Perhaps the most important aspect of forming a women's ministry is to help Saudi businesswomen remove obstacles to conducting business within and outside the Kingdom. A ministry will also implement programs to aid unemployed women. Although Saudi women comprise of 45 percent of Saudi Arabia's population, more than 28 percent are unemployed. Yet we should consider that Saudi women also control an estimated $11.9 billion (SR 44.6 billion) in funds.

The female business community has grown so large in the past decade that the current set of rules no longer effectively regulates commercial interests operated by women. For example, Asharq Al-Awsat reports that 72.6 percent of the Saudi female-registered businesses are conducted outside the home and 92 percent have employees on the payroll. However, conducting business outside Saudi Arabia is virtually impossible given guardianship issues, travel restrictions and the archaic requirement that a business must be registered in a man's name.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. We can't assume that a Saudi Ministry of Women's Affairs will solve any of these issues. Like so many novel proposals in Saudi Arabia, there is usually a high degree of window-dressing. A women's ministry will not only fail miserably, but it will be an embarrassment to the Saudi government if doesn't appoint a woman to run it. Not only must she possess the decision-making privileges enjoyed by all ministers, but also have full Shoura member status and all the authority that goes with it.

Similarly, men must also be part of the minister's team to ease the path of communication between other ministries. From a practical standpoint, it's important to have men support, encourage and help integrate women into the highest levels of Saudi government. If inexperienced Saudi women think they can run a ministry on their own, expect to be taken seriously and have productive relationships with other ministers without a male team in place, then they are kidding themselves that they will accomplish anything.

Parity in the workplace is a vital issue for women, but it shouldn't be the primary goal for a women's ministry. Without question, the sticky issue of male guardianship needs attention. Thought must be given whether to abolish the existing patently unfair system or overhaul it to reflect our true Islamic values. While the Saudi judicial system has made some strides in recent years to address the minimum marriage age for women, this is a job for a women's ministry. And in addition, the ministry must have the authority to deal with individuals who abuse their guardianship responsibilities by refusing their daughters and sisters their religious right to marry who they please or by forcing them to work and taking their salaries.

Curbing domestic abuse, establishing women's shelters and providing medical outreach programs to low-income families without males in the household are necessities that come under the purview of a women's ministry.

The idea of a Ministry of Women's Affairs comes at the right time. We've seen the Saudi government appear serious in giving women a greater voice. The appointment of Nora Bint Abdullah Al-Fayez as deputy education minister in 2009 is a great step in the right direction. It's too early to tell whether Al-Fayez is effective in her job, but indications after nearly two years on the job point to her positive influence.

If a women's ministry is in Saudi Arabia's future, let us hope it's given a mandate to make a positive change in the role of Saudi woman, rather than merely satisfy Saudi Arabia's critics.