By Arab News
By Abdulateef Al-Mulhim
Women movements around the world are always slow. Even in countries like America, which was founded in 1776, even though women were only allowed to vote in 1920.
America is still behind Europe in women’s movements. Most European countries had women as presidents and prime ministers. Also some Muslim countries had women holding the highest political position.
Sally Ride, the first American woman astronaut to enter space was in elementary school when the Soviet Union had a woman (Valentina Tereshkova) in space in 1963. Even to this day, the only three American women to hold top political positions were Secretaries of State. And Secretaries of State are appointed, not elected.
But, what is the relation between the Saudi woman and an old building in the Bronx called Fort Schuyler? As a Saudi who always watches women movements around the world, I had to see a reference point for comparison. To know how tall you are, you compare it with others’ heights. Fort Schuyler is an old fort that was built to defend New York, but not a single shot was fired from there. This fort is where the largest and most modern maritime school in the world is based. And until recently, it resembled Saudi Arabia in one thing. It is a male dominated society. Women were not allowed in the school until the early 1970s. And writing an article in the school paper (The Port Hole) about the assignment of a woman as the school president could get you an easy 50 demerits. And 50 demerits represented one third of the road to getting expelled from the school. And the irony is that this school is located in the most liberal city in America. It was like Saudi Arabia when discussing woman’s issues. It was a taboo. I know. I am a Saudi who saw the real streets of the Bronx Tale.
To my amazement, historical changes in Saudi Arabia and this New York fort came within one month of each other. In New York, around 3 p.m. on Wednesday Aug. 31, 2011, Rear Admiral Wendi Carpenter became the first woman to become the President of SUNY, Maritime College at Fort Schuyler. This woman, a retired admiral who holds the same rank as I did when I retired came a long way to be at the top of the most male dominated place in America. I do regret not going to the ceremony. And 8,000 miles away, in the Saudi capital of Riyadh at around 3 p.m. on Sunday Sept. 25, 2011, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah announced the historical step for Saudi women to be allowed in the Shoura Council in its next cycle and to allow Saudi women to be part of the next cycle of municipal elections. It is a very giant step for Saudi women. The Saudi women are lucky, as they have a king on their side. But, why, as a Saudi man, do I have an interest in women movements in Saudi Arabia? The answer is, because I have read and seen writings about Saudi women as if they were written by aliens from outer space.
The Saudi woman is the most talked about in foreign press. And I have never seen an article that was positive about them. But the irony of these reports is that they only talk about the cases of abuse or mistreatment of women. And women abuse is an international daily event. And most cases in the American courts involve domestic violence against women. And if you only take these cases, you would think American women is the most abused. Also, when I talk to Western ladies in Saudi Arabia about the Saudi woman, they all tell me that before coming to the Kingdom they thought the Saudi women would get up at four in the morning to carry water on their heads from a faraway well and start a fire to make bread. And when those Western ladies get together with Saudi women at social events, they are then impressed by how beautiful, educated, open minded and how much power Saudi women have. Believe me readers, I know, my wife is a Saudi.
Nowadays, the hidden side of the Saudi woman is more brighter than what people think. Saudi women are going to schools in the Kingdom and thousands of them have a full government scholarship in the East and West. On the other hand, the foreign press sometimes sees Saudi women as very spoiled because they have maids and personal drivers. And yes, there is an increasing demand for Saudi woman to drive, but it is not an issue that the foreign press should talk about as a form of women abuse. Saudi women are happier than what a lot of people think. And it is up to Saudi women to decide the next step. We Saudis never told foreign women what to wear at Miami beach.
— Abdulateef Al-Mulhim is a commodore (retired), Royal Saudi Navy. ([email protected])