The Role Of Saudi Women In Leadership

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Saudi Arabia is a desert country that runs over 8,000 square miles. There are big cities, like Riyadh, Makah, Medina, Dhahran and Jeddah; residents in these areas enjoy the amenities of well-planned modern metropolitan cities. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, headed by the Al Saud royal family, with a council of ministers. Saudi Arabia’s strong root in religious and tribal history has made it what it has become today. By the 1970’s Saudi Arabia had become dominant in the realm of international finance and a significant political power in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia occupies the larger part of the Arabian Peninsula and is the world’s leading oil producer and exporter. The kingdom is the center of the major places of importance for Muslims from all over the world.

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Plight of Saudi women

There are very few (if any) well known women leaders in Saudi Arabia; this is as a result of the vast gender discrimination against the girl child. There are laws that are restrictive to women and hinder them from getting leadership roles. This study aims to explore the discriminative judicial and government systems in the country towards women. It will also describe the leadership roles of women in the Saudi society. The various aspects of leadership and gender discrimination against Saudi women will be discussed. Women are more than the men in the population of Saudi Arabia; it’s therefore very ironical that they had not been allowed to work. It is in the last ten years that women have been accepted as part of the working community. This demonstrates the lack of working sectors open to Saudi women. In fact transport sector discriminates women, in that a woman would not travel unaccompanied by a male companion. The society still looks down upon employed women.  

Jobs available for Saudi women are very limited and are mostly in education, health, and administration. Women can work and attain jobs in any setting as long as there is no exposure to men. Because of this cultural and religious rule, women need to have their own independent social and educational organizations. Society allows women to fill top administrative positions in women’s colleges in order to manage the college effectively. Despite these achievements education for Saudi women is still regarded secondary to taking care of the household and family.

For a long time, women’s education was subject to negotiation with religious and social traditions. Women in Saudi Arabia were officially allowed to get formal education about forty years ago while the men started way before the women. Consequently, there are very few jobs available for well-qualified women in Saudi Arabia. The women in Saudi Arabia are now more than ever in pursuit in order to empower themselves through education in readiness of leadership positions that may come their way


Position of women in the society

There are many different aspects that one encounters while trying to understand and explore the Saudi Arabian culture. The role and status of the women is key in understanding the position of a woman in this culture. In Saudi Arabia, women do not have much to do outside their homes. Girls, from an early age, obtain a domestic role that befits them. For a young girl in Saudi Arabia, becoming a mother is the norm and is the biggest goal in life. She is raised to believe that she should aim to be a “good mother” and that it is her responsibility to devote her time to her husband and children. However, this is gradually changing; the government now supports education of the girl child.

Women’s rights groups in Saudi Arabia are not functional for instance, women are still not allowed to drive or ride on motor vehicles with strangers, and one should either be accompanied by a close relative, an employee or the employer (Helen, 2007). This law denies women a vital right; freedom of independent movement (Colin, 2005).

A Saudi woman cannot be admitted into any hospital without the consent of a male family member. Despite all these, women are finding other means of maneuvering through these restrictive rules in order to pursue business this is through the intensive use of the internet (Anders, 1998).

Legal, social and religious controls combine to limit a woman’s freedom of movement in the country. From the government perspective, this is aimed at protecting the women, but most women perceive the law as a way of accelerating and empowering the men and their dominance in the society, (Helen, 2007).

Women of the Middle East have long been viewed as an oppressed group. From the desert sands of Saudi Arabia to the mountainous lands of Afghanistan, Arab women have faced many hardships in their society. While the role of a woman is meant to be nurturing and domestic, many women have moved on to a more modern view, and have taken on the role as educators and laborers. Arab women threaten the traditional family structure by doing so; however, for many it is a sacrifice they are willing to make, as they have seen that the world has more to offer than just household chores and childbearing.

Rights of women in the past, today and the future

The Saudi system is set up in a form known as the Sunni-Islam state version, which is a conservative form of government; this version is characterized by incorporating the interpretation of the Muslim faith and using it to formulate law. The Islamic law is interpreted in such a way that it enhances gender inequality; the women are subjected to strict and tight legal regulations on their personal behavior while the men are exempted from the rules (Colin, 2005). There is no equality for women despite Article 8 of the Saudi law which states that, “Government in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is based on the premise of justice, consultation, and equality in accordance with the shari’ah law” (Sameena, 2005). However, the individual interpretations favor men rather than women resulting in a hierarchy system that also privileges notables and good connections over ordinary citizens and outsiders. This system in itself creates a biased and self-centered form of society associated with misinterpretation of religious scripture. Foreigners are treated differently depending on the country of origin and the race, too (Kathleen, 1991).

Women cannot act as lawyers, and for women to access justice she hires a male lawyer wand she is forced to offer up most of her confidential information regarding financial and family matters to the lawyer and the judges. A single man’s testimony in the court is the same as for two women (Sameena, 2005). In most cases, the women rely on their husbands and this denies the women personal justice and the ability to access power and leadership positions since one cannot experience power without justice.

There are vast cases of gender discrimination in the employment sector in Saudi Arabia, this is attributed to the fact that most of the people are religious and have interpreted Islamic teachings in a particular way (Anders, 1998). For women, access to employment activities is very limited, with minimal enjoyment of the full benefits of citizenship or adulthood.

Gender discrimination against women has exacerbated reformers to proactively advocate for democracy and empowerment of women in the country. The international community is also working in close collaboration with the reformers to help in the administration of justice and the equality of gender in Saudi Arabia (Sameena, 2005). Consequently, Saudi Arabia has made some progress in women’s education and employment.

Saudi women and the education sector

Education is a central aspect of family and community life. There is a close link between home and school and they further correlate with the way the structure and community is shaped. The education of Arab women started long ago, dating back almost 1500 years, when the wife of Prophet Muhammad, Khadija, owned her own caravan and was her own employer; a successful one at that. However, after the Prophet’s death, the status of women slowly began to decline, and by the early 1900’s, Arab women’s status had been dwindled down to that of oppression and non-education. Because of this, several feminist women movements arose in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the most famous one led by Huda Sha’rawi in Egypt (Ahmed, 1992). Even though these feminist movements helped encourage Arab women to get back on the rise in society, only a handful were able to achieve that, as many countries such as Saudi Arabia were still not into empowering women.

Women’s education in Saudi Arabia started informally with the Kuttab schools that taught the fundamentals of Islam and the basics of writing, reading, and arithmetic. By 1945, King Abdul Aziz, the country’s founder, had initiated an extensive program to establish schools in the Kingdom. Six years later, in 1951, the country had 226 schools with 29,887 students (Collins, 2005). In 1954, the Ministry of Education was established headed by then Prince Fahd as the first Minister of Education. The first ever university in Saudi Arabia was opened in Riyadh in early 1957.

In 1943, the first private girl’s school was established in Makkah by a group of people in the private sector who wanted to teach their daughters basic reading, writing and mathematics (Al Salloom, 1989). When public elementary education for girls began in 1960, there were only 15 school buildings, with a total of 127 classrooms and 518 female students. Public education at the intermediate and secondary levels for girls followed in 1963 with four school buildings for the intermediate level, and one for the secondary level (Al Salloom, 1989). As Saudi families started to realize that educating their daughters posed no threat to family life and in the traditional role of women in society, the attitude towards females’ education changed.

Female students enrolled at all educational levels and more schools were opened. From 1970 to 1990 the number of female students enrolled in higher education expanded from 400 students to 48,000 (Kathleen, 1991). With the rapid expansion of educational facilities and enrollment, a high number of teachers and school principals were female. Today, Saudi Arabia’s nationwide educational system comprises many universities and colleges, including thousands of primary and secondary schools. Open to every citizen, the system provides students with free education, books and health services.

To complement their studies in universities in the Kingdom, Saudi students have the opportunity to pursue graduate and post-graduate degrees in specialized fields abroad. Supported by the government scholarships, thousands of Saudi students are enrolled in universities outside the Kingdom, mainly in the United States.

The beginning of women’s higher education was similar in Saudi Arabia and the United States, in that both countries, at one point, denied women access to higher education and women were considered as comparative newcomers to equity of opportunity in education. This brings light to addressing another issue involving higher education and the Saudi woman: women don’t have the right to make decisions and set policies concerning their higher education. To some extent, they may manage and organize their day-to-day departments, operations and resources but all major decisions affecting them-such as hiring, planning and evaluating are still made by men. What makes this problem more complicated is the lack of communication, face to face between men who are high in administered hierarchy and women who occupy lower administrative levels.

For the graduate female students, there are minimal chances for them to advance in the job markets and this hinders the women from rising up into a leadership position in the education sector. There are a few women who have been lucky to get leadership positions in the education .These women play an important role, they champion for more women to be incorporated into leadership positions, however, their sentiments are always ignored (Helen, 2007).The nature of female leadership roles in Saudi Arabia cannot be compared to other countries, these women are segregated and marginalized and thus they are denied educational leadership roles (Anders, 1998).

Cultural factors influencing Saudi women

The shaping of societies in general is dependent on cultural and traditional factors, as well as economic and political systems. In Saudi Arabia, society culture and traditions play a major role. Culture predominantly influences women’s’ roles in Muslim society, because of the emphasis placed on women’s status and acceptable behavior as outlined in the Quran. Ahmed (1992) believes that no matter what form the political system takes, no matter what level of education women attain, no matter what traditional values govern employment, Saudi women would not play major leadership roles in modern day economics because cultural factors have impeded their development. There are a number of factors that have impacted the Saudi women’s status and their position in society. The economy, the importance of the family unit, the educational opportunities available, the degree of encouragement women encounter in their pursuit of education and work, and the degree of urbanization attained are all important factors that shape a society and mold many of its beliefs and values (Pinter, 1984).

Saudi Arabia’s culture and traditions are different from the United States and are used as a basis of comparison for two reasons: first, Saudi Arabia and the United States are young wealthy countries that continue to progress (Al-Dawood, 1995); and second, to see if Saudi Arabian secondary school teachers’ levels of job satisfaction are different from that of secondary school teachers in the United States.

Limited information on Saudi female teachers’ job satisfaction and principal leadership behavior in Saudi Arabia is available, thus it is necessary to also look at research conducted about male teachers. Beck & Keddie (1978) indicated that men have reported a higher degree of job satisfaction than women, but more recently differences have diminished, due in part to more equal opportunities for the employment and advancement of women.

A Study carried out in Qatar (a country that borders Saudi Arabia) reveals that there is no significant difference in the levels of job satisfaction between men and women (Moshaikeh, 1981). Al-Salom (1996) reports that a similar study was carried out in the United States and also found no significant difference in the level of job satisfaction between male and female teachers.

The Quran advocates for stable family life, at no point does it state that women are not equal to men and that they should not mix freely in their places of work (Al-Sallom, 1989).This is not usually the case and people still misinterpret religion and use the Quran as a basis for isolating women.

The differences between women in the Middle East and the ones in the western countries like United States may are due to cultural factors. Despite growing acceptance of women’s education in Saudi Arabia, education for women still faces conservative attitudes from many Saudi citizens. Such conservative thinking focuses on women building the traditional roles of wives and mothers and may cause fear that education may weaken these roles. These conservative attitudes towards women’s education are not related to the influences of Islam, but may be part of the traditions of the Saudi Society (Christopher, 1993). In addition, women receive fewer formal courses in school administration and in-service training than men (Abdel, 1997).

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Women administrators receive inadequate training; as a result, female school principals are less qualified in leadership behaviors and supervision than their male counterparts are. Teachers should have a chance to use what they have learned in education courses. They also should be involved in the planning and decision-making process regarding curriculum, time use, classroom instructions, method of instructions, resource allocation, and procedures for students’ evaluation. Including them as active participants would be an excellent first step in enhancing their job satisfaction.

Power of women in the past, today and the future

Economic empowerment of women

One of the major factors that have shaped the Saudi Society is the economic situation. However, Kathleen, (1991) disagrees with the notion that a modern capitalist economy and its extension to almost all areas have resulted in many positive changes for women in Saudi Arabia. She argues that pre-capitalist urban occupations were already open to Saudi women of all classes, from midwifery and entertainment to holders of important real estate. Economic changes of the modern period did not improve or raise the levels of women’s participation in public life. In the Saudi culture, serious life begins with marriage, which can be for many, an escape from family pressures and economic difficulty. Because males are seen as the protectors and supporters of women and are, therefore, considered indispensable, families pull all their resources together (material and emotional) to ensure that their young daughters marry appropriately.

Women of Saudi nationality are not allowed to access benefits from the government. In the case where a Saudi woman marries a non-Saudi, she then cannot pass the nationality to her children. Consequently, in 2002, women had no right to obtain the national identity card without the order from the mahram, but they appeared as nationals from the state records that included her as a member of a particular family only (Kathleen, 1991). When this was the norm, widowed and single women had a hard time gaining leadership of their families and also in obtaining other benefits of their own and from the state subsidies (Cordesman, 2003).

Saudi women do not have the right to the sign contracts or to control financial assets and in this instance, women are made to “lick the boots” of the males. As a result, women are denied the economic leadership and mainly depend on their husbands for economical support. The women cannot be integrated in the development processes and this greatly impacts them due to their reduced influence in policy making and changes in legislation (Colin, 2005).

In a way, the Saudi law ensures gender equity to men and women related to each other. Consider for example, the case where the daughters retain half as much inheritance as the sons and when such women get married then they under the care of their husbands (Colin, 2005) .Women retain property after marriage and in this case, the husbands have the right to protect the woman and hence the women have no obligation to spend their acquired wealth on the men’s behalf. The married men have the full responsibility for their family needs. And in case a woman conducts herself in an immoral manner, the man of closest relation is punished on her behalf (Helen, 2007).

The role of women in Saudi Arabia is becoming more significant in both political and economic terms as more and more women hold positions of leadership and civic prominence. The educational levels of the women who have made significant contributions on leadership hold positions as founders of organizations and range in their education: from holding bachelors, masters, and doctorate degrees. Some of these women hold voluntary positions and others hold paid positions that entail career commitments.

The Saudi Arabia government has given higher education, there are new educational policies put in place. The government established the Ministry of Higher Education in 1975 whose long term vision is to provide highly trained manpower necessary to run the country’s increasingly sophisticated economy. The primary objective of this ministry is to establish new institutions of higher learning throughout the country.

The Kingdom has given priority to quantity and quality expansion of education in the last five to seven-years among other development plans. Despite the low percentage of Saudi women working in the labor force in the Kingdom compared to advanced countries, it is the unavailability of working sectors open for Saudi women – usually limited to education and medicine – which has caused some saturation in these sectors. The Saudi government is planning to undertake a study of the role of women in the country’s economy (Al-Mohamed, (2007). There are policies set by the government in order to support women who want to work. The main aim of these policies is to lower t unemployment rate among women in Saudi Arabian women. In line with this objective, the government and private organizations provide counseling services to women in stressful environments of employment. The Saudi government plan is beyond employment and aims to empower women with entrepreneurial and investing. Saudi Arabia might have to revise some policies that a restrict women from participating in the economy of the country.

Women and political leadership

The participation of women in the public domain, including the political arena, is very limited in Saudi Arabia. Unlike other women in the western world, Saudi women have no social or political rights. They still have to obtain consent of male counterparts in order to fulfill basic things, like obtaining a passport and travel.

The hierarchical system of the Saudi government does not allow for democratic voting. Saudi Arabian political leaders are, therefore, hiding behind false religious pretexts by withholding many rights from women. It is a violation of their religious beliefs and practices. Other Islamic countries, such as Egypt, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain, allow women to vote and still maintain their traditional and religious practices.

The country does not contain any political parties, thus the absence of elections. Women are becoming more active in reform but their efforts are marginalized. The extent of reform is determined by the ruling family (Cordesman, 2003).

Al-Mohamed (2007) attributes the lack of a political role for Saudi women to educational decisions; he goes on and gives an example where women do not major in Political Science in their higher learning. For example, Princess Dr. al-Jawaharlal bint Fahd al-Saud was undersecretary of education for women’s colleges for 10 years before becoming president of Riyadh University for Women in April 2007, yet she had no power to make decisions even though she had the power (Al-Mohamed, 2007).

The country lacks the basic freedoms for even the civil society to take part in the leadership. It is very hard to start new organizations and even more so the women groups, due to their co-option by the government. I would recommend the existence of political parties in the country with free elections since this would foster democratic growth in the country (Anders, 1998). The media should be free to express their ideas and women rights agencies should be supported to help in the equality of gender, promote the growth of the economy and the active participation of women in the exercising of political power (Kathleen, 1991).

Role of religion in empowering women

To better understand a Saudi woman’s position, one must learn a great deal about the culture and religion. One should also understand Islam, its history and culture. In a Muslim community, the people are to follow God’s commands and live a moral life. Saudi women who are working and serve society should be careful to follow an Islamic way of life.

In the modern society, wearing a hijab, which may cover a woman’s head or her whole body, remains part of Muslim culture in Saudi Arabia and also worldwide. Most Muslim women dress modestly and in Muslim countries even the most successful business women will cover themselves with the hijab. Many of the women welcome this practice as they feel it prevents them from being bothered by co-workers or strangers. Some modern Muslims in non-Muslims cultures, however, choose not to cover to attract less attention rather than deal with discouragement about it. Whichever the case, the wearing of a hijab should be intended to please God and should not be done in a mandatory or pressurized manner (Cordesman, 2003).

Before Islam, women in the Arab world had no rights to own any property, inherit, divorce, or even choose their marriage partner; the father was usually the one to decide or a male relative. With the advent of Islam, women were given the aforementioned rights and their status changed to that of a dignified human being, deserving of respect and honor. The Islamic view about women is that men and women are equal in their origin and their rights. According to the history of Islam, women have political rights, can participate in public affairs, run a business, choose their husbands and even inherit properly. In regard of women’s education, a woman in Islam is not required to contribute financially to the family, which may explain why some Saudis consider education to be worthwhile and necessary for males and less for women. The Quran, which is the source of Islamic jurisprudence, contains no verse that deprives woman the right to be educated In fact, the word Quran is derived from the word ‘reading’ and the first verse of the Quran calls on the devoted to read and write. There are no barriers to women acquiring knowledge in the Islamic faith as long as there is no mixing between the two genders.

Most people that profess the Muslim faith do not believe that that men and women are equal in matters of religion (Kathleen, 1991). The role of women in the family and upbringing of children play a major part consequently, the women are allowed to worship at home as the men and the boys worship at the mosque. Despite the active role of women in religion, Saudi women are denied access to any management roles and leadership positions in the country’s religious institutions (Kathleen, 1991).

There are still some conservative people who do not want to embrace The New World Order, where women work and are independent, religion is still the excuse of this people. There is as an ideological conflict between culture and religion, Islam allows women the right to education and work. As a result Arab women continue to seek education and work, society’s expectations hover over them, giving them more strength to those who oppose empowering women.

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The purpose of this study was to examine the family and societal factors that affect Saudi women in their pursuit of leadership positions in a Muslim society, such as that found in Saudi Arabia. Another area of interest was the impact of Islam on the Saudi women and their pursuit of leadership roles in public life. It is true that the law and the male dominated society and does not provide a good environment for leadership positions of women. The women now more than ever are willing to take the risk and empower themselves, sooner than later women from these part of the world will catch up with other countries that have overcome gender discrimination.

Studies show that Saudi women are getting more attention due to the current interest in multiculturalism and global awareness. There are many women in Saudi Arabia who have attained leadership roles on a smaller scale, such as in remote villages and rural areas. The number of Saudi women who have leadership positions may not be large in comparison to the number of women with leadership positions in Western nations or even in neighboring countries but it is a great step considering the position of Arab women and their role and treatment under Islamic culture. Women who have leadership roles in Arab societies are an important resource for information that can help bridge the gap between preconceived notions about the Arab world and the reality of the conditions encountered by women in that part of the world. For instance , in America there are great women who have revolutionized leadership like Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice while in Germany Angela Merkel is the Chancellor. In the Middle East the most common figure was Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan who was a potential political leader but was assassinated. These women in leadership ar role models to other women all over the world and soon the Arab world is going to embrace women leadership.

However, the level of leadership and the participation of women in various positions in Saudi are faced with mainly two interrelated issues. First, the effects of the constitutional rights on women and secondly, is the status of women and their position in reference to Islamic laws.

Reform is urgently needed in both educational and employment sectors to provide greater equality for women. Previous trends of females in educational development indicate an ever expanding access of education by women to where they may outnumber men. However, gender segregation and inferiorities in curriculum differentiation is still experienced. There should be more awareness campaigns for women to be informed on the importance of pursuing education to a higher level and diversification of courses to be studied. The diversification of the country’s economy and the expansion of the services in the various sectors may result in the liberalization of the scope of occupation and enroll women in leadership roles. This change would be due to the shortage of labor and the increased participation of women in the education facilities and curriculums. This would help move women up in public visibility and allow them to participate in the decision making of the country.


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