Monday 9 March 2009 (13 Rabi` al-Awwal 1430) 

      Importance of having a woman as minister
      Dr. Basma Al-Mutlaq | Arab News
      The significant government reshuffle we recently witnessed in the Kingdom 
suggests a willingness to effect change in an institution that has hitherto 
excluded women on the grounds of religious and cultural customs. The scales are 
still heavily weighted in favor of the male subject; nevertheless it is a 
long-anticipated development that is welcomed by women here.

      For those generations who have known nothing but exclusion and gender 
apartheid, and have suffered an acute sense of alienation from their own 
society in the past, it means a new leaning toward the integration of all 
subjects, regardless of gender. This may seem a Utopian dream, but the hope 
that we are at least moving in the direction of tolerance of the other and 
openness toward different ideas, should motivate us to press for further 
positive steps. Extremism of any kind has proven over and again to be a 
perilous path that leads not only to horrific violence, and hatred and 
intolerance for the "other", but also intimidates those who at present are 
finding it difficult to integrate into a hostile environment. 

      On the subject of "hope", many people are hopeful that having a woman in 
government will mean that the authorities will start an in-depth discussion on 
the quality of teaching in girls' schools and colleges, and engage with 
educators and other professionals on the best way to address long-standing and 
chronic problems within the education system - a system that fails lamentably 
to respond to the needs and aspirations of half of its young population.

      As enthralled and excited as I and every one else in this country is to 
see these changes happening, I believe that women need and deserve more than 
one representative in government to address pressing issues - issues that are 
at heart cultural. Deeply ingrained in the mentality of people and in the 
fabric of this society are ideas and assumptions that give the male the lead 
over women, and the right to control the physical and intellectual dimensions 
of her life. 

      The appointment of young, educated men to positions within the new 
government signifies a desire for renewal and a determination to defy some of 
the prevalent medieval elements that persist at the highest levels. These 
elements have for too long promoted toxic ideas about women that have resulted 
in a shameful deterioration of women's overall social and economic status in a 
country that prides itself on its wealth creation and technological progress.

      I am surely not the only one who is tired of these clich├ęs about women, 
whereby they are not independent human beings full of dynamism and ideas, but 
are "pearls in a shell" that should be protected and taken care of. Even more 
insulting is the idea that "women are mentally and religiously incompetent" - 
yet another false pretext for giving men the upper hand in their relations with 
women. These interpretations of religious traditions not only result in 
segregation of, and the imposition of rigid boundaries between the sexes, but 
stipulate that it is a rule of faith that should be enforced with often brutal 
policing methods. This is a major obstacle to the achievement of equality in 
the work place for educated women, who still find themselves left out in the 
cold, and must experience the disappointment of seeing less able men reach the 
top of their careers. The fact that people in this country are rewarded 
positions and salaries on the basis of their gender, not of their 
qualifications or ability, makes it difficult to argue that women are not 
discriminated against in the job market. Indeed, if one wants to talk about 
competence, then we must question the wisdom of appointing an incompetent man 
over a competent woman because of some misguided notion that one sex is 
innately capable. 

      I can only hope that we will have more women representatives in 
government in the near future, that women will be more visible in public, and 
that major restrictions on mobility will be lifted to give women the space and 
autonomy they need to recognize themselves as socially equal beings. 

      The imbalance of power between the sexes is a long overdue issue that 
should be promptly addressed in the newly assembled government; it cannot be 
overstated how important it is to have universal suffrage in a country that 
wants to see itself as an equal partner in a globalized economy. We might be a 
proud country, but we must ask ourselves whether this pride is justified as 
long as we humiliate and alienate 50 percent of our population.

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