Panelists address misperceptions of society in the Kingdom
JEDDAH, October 8, 2017 – A panel discussion highlighting the changing role of women in Saudi Arabia was held in Moscow, as part of the events on the sidelines of the historic state visit of King Salman bin Abdulaziz to Russia.
The program, which took place on Friday at Washington Hall in the Ritz Carlton Hotel, was organized by the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information’s Center for International Communications (CIC). The talk also highlighted the misperceptions and prejudices people outside the Kingdom often nurture about Saudi women and the country in general.
The panel discussion was moderated by Faisal Abbas, Editor in Chief of Arab News, a Saudi English-language daily.
The panelists included Somayya Jabarti, Editor in Chief of Saudi Gazette newspaper; Hoda Al-Helissi, member of the Saudi Shoura Council; Maria Dubovikova, political commentator, researcher and an expert on Middle East affairs; and Olga Zinyakova, president of Russia’s KARO Movie Network.
The topics of discussion centered on the role of women in society, equality in the workplace and the Royal Decree issued last month allowing women to drive. Addressing a misperception about Saudi women, Al-Helissi explained that ever since joining the Shoura Council five years ago, she had consistently received support from her male colleagues. “I don’t think that the position women have reached in Saudi Arabia would be possible without the support of their male colleagues,” she said.
Talking about the government’s decision to allow Saudi women to drive, she said women deep down knew that this decision would not be taken in phases but at once. That move, she said, put to rest any previous doubts whether conservative voices would prevail and persuade the government not to take this crucial step. “If the Royal Decree specified that women can drive from June,” she said, “it was only because the government decided to give them time to learn driving and get their driving licenses.”
Dispelling another misperception, Jabarti stressed that women can indeed open a bank account without a male guardian. She blamed the media, especially in the West, for spreading such inaccurate information about Saudi society.
Talking about the perception of Saudi Arabia in the outside world, Dubovikova said that the Kingdom has a stereotypical image in Russia. Those ideas are certainly not true, she said. “Saudi Arabia has a rich heritage and it has been making phenomenal progress in art, culture and other areas.” She stressed that with the Saudi society opening up, the wrong notions about the Kingdom are being dispelled as people have started to discover the real Saudi Arabia. She said she was confident that wrong impressions about the Kingdom would be further overcome through political and cultural exchanges. With the two countries having started to exchange visits and strengthen relations, their people are getting to learn about each other’s culture.
Zinyakova pointed out that as in Saudi Arabia, women in Russia faced many challenges in the past. There are still some prejudices against women in the country, she said, which are impeding advancement of women in her country.
Commenting on the challenges women face in Saudi Arabia, Jabarti said much of the problem lies in “our mind”. She said that despite popular perceptions of Saudi women in the workplace, she never felt restricted. “Our doors will open only when we push them,” she said. Yet, Saudi society still needs to change, said Al-Helissi. “That change will come through education.”
The panel discussion – one of many held during the King’s visit to Moscow – was followed by a question-answer session with the audience that included journalists, researchers and political commentators.