Norah Al-Faiz: Saudi Arabia’s first female minister

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Monday, February 16, 2009, 20:36
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Saudi Arabia is a country where women are not allowed to drive, in many cases, not allowed to work when they can come in contact with women, and not allowed out alone. And that country now gets its first ever female minister. She is Norah Al-Faiz, U.S educated former teacher and an expert in girl’s education.

Norah bint Abdullah al-Faiz was has been made the deputy education minister by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in a recent cabinet reshuffle which also saw some conservatives losing their positions.

“This is an honor not only for me but for all Saudi women. In the presence of a comprehensive operational team, I believe I’ll be able to face challenges and create positive change,” she told Arab News. Faiz said she would study the state of girls’ education in Saudi Arabia before commenting on the task before her.

Norah Al-Faiz received her Bachelor’s Degree in Arts from King Saud University in Riyadh in 1978 and her Master’s Degree in Education from Utah State University in 1982. Before her new appointment, she was the director general of the women’s section at the Institute of Public Administration. Before 1993, Norah Al Faiz was controller of education techniques at the Institute of Private Education under the Ministry of Education from 1989. Norah’s appointment is the highest rank ever attained by any woman in Soudi Arabia.

Optimism about Kig Abdullah’s appointment of Norah Al Faiz and other reformists is tempered, though, because the society and bureaucracy still remains very conservative. There is fear that the appointment of the first female minister may end up as just a symbolic gesture. More important in the larger schemes of things are how the reforms brought in by the King will be implemented by the bureaucracy, which is still very conservative.

After ascending the the throne of Saudi Arabia in 2005, this was King Abdullah’s first reshuffle and an opportunity to replace the anti reformists – the chief of the Saudi religious police, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith, and the country’s most senior judge, Sheikh Salih Ibn al-Luhaydan. Among his most well-known achievements is an edict which declared that television channel executives who promote immorality can be killed. Ghaith, who runs the commission for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice, known as the mutawa, which enforces bans on alcohol and drugs, has gained a reputation for brutality. Both have been removed.

King Abdullah is known to be impatient with the pace of reforms in this most conformist of all Islamic countries. It is often said that Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries were the leaders are held back from reforms by conservative popular opinion.

Norah Al-Faiz’s appointment can be considered as a first step for a better tomorrow for women in Saudi Arabia but serious changes are needed, said an outspoken advocate of women’s rights on Sunday. She said the “guardianship system” is the first thing that should be removed by the new Saudi government.

According to the guardian system, a woman is still not completely in control of her life and her decisions because it is not up to her but her male guardian.

She noted that Saudi women still do not have the right to drive and are still recognized under Saudi law as the property of men.

Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi school of Islam imposes a strict separation opposite sexes, burqa laws, and keeps them dependent on male guardians. It is unlikely Norah Al Faiz’s appointment to the minister post will change any of that. But it might be a small first step – one that would lead to more reforms, or to a major clash between reformists and conservatives.

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