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 clichés 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.