Saudi women from adventurers to inventors are hoping a unique conference in Riyadh on Saturday will highlight their changing role and inspire younger women to push for new opportunities in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
The event comes at a time when reforms are slowly changing women’s lives in one of the world’s most gender-segregated countries – where women live under the supervision of a male guardian and cannot drive.
Women can now sit on the government advisory Shura Council, vote in municipal elections, and work in some retail and hospitality jobs with the government’s Vision 2030 trying to diversify the oil-reliant economy by boosting female employment.
The one-day conference run by Alwaleed Philanthropies, a charitable group working to help women, will see Saudi women from various walks of life on the stage alongside international speakers such as British women’s rights campaigner Cherie Blair.
One speaker, Raha Moharrak, 31, who made history in 2013 as the first Saudi woman to climb Mount Everest, said girls in Saudi Arabia must be taught that they are not less than boys.
“My journey started as a mini rebellion .. I wanted to shock my parents,” said Moharrak, who was determined to do something different after studying abroad and won her reluctant father over by email explaining why climbing was important to her.
“In our culture we are taught to be quiet, taught that being bold is ugly, that being different is discouraged. I think that bold is beautiful, that being different is unique.”
Other speakers include Hadeel Ayoub who invented a smart glove that converts sign language to text and writer Kawthar Al Arbash whose son was killed in 2015 trying to stop an Islamic State suicide bomber.
Princess Lamia bint Majed Al Saud, secretary general of Alwaleed Philanthropies, said the conference, with the slogan “Saudi Women Can”, was part of a campaign to draw attention to Saudi women’s achievements and inspire the next generation.
After the conference – which she hopes to make annual – a microsite SaudiWomenCan.com with a mobile app will issue daily motivational quotes, while other initiatives are planned.
“I want to give the younger generation role models to show them that, no matter what obstacles, there are opportunities and give them stories to inspire them,” Princess Lamia told the Thomson Reuters Foundation which is partnering with the charity to provide training for Saudi journalists on women’s issues.
Speaker Eqbal Darandari, associate professor at King Saud University who was elected to the Shura Council in 2016, said it was important women learned responsibility and leadership.
“We need to teach females to be stronger .. to make change, to work on their own,” said Darandari, adding the biggest progress would come if women were given decision making roles.
“We are achieving things but not as fast as we would like. But this is a problem not from the top but from down, from the people, as what is needed is social change and that is slow.”
Saudi Arabia is ranked 141 of 144 countries in the Global Gender Gap, a World Economic Forum study on how women fare in economic and political participation, health and education.
A state policy of gender segregation between unrelated men and women is strictly enforced with separate areas in public spaces and separate entrances at workplaces.
In public all women must wear a head-to-toe black garment.
Moharrak, a graphic designer, said women need to get the support of their fathers and brothers for real change to happen.
“All the women who have managed to achieve independence have two things in common: a rebellious heart and an understanding father. We don’t grow up with an easy path but no-one wants to be disowned or disrespect their father,” she said.