Saudi Arabia educating its women for jobs: Louise Khurshid

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS
Saturday, October 23, 2010

NEW DELHI - A gentle wind of change is blowing through the socio-economic and gender mosaic of Saudi Arabia as the orthodox Islamic kingdom opens up to women’s education and allows them to find their identity as professionals, says journalist-turned-politician Louise Khurshid.

Louise, the wife of union minister Salman Khurshid, was part of a six-member women’s friendship delegation that visited Saudi Arabia Oct 8-14.

The focus of women’s education, as Saudi Arabia Vice Minister of Education Norah Abdullah Al Faiz told the delegation, was “job-oriented”, Khurshid said.

“Saudi Arabia’s women are confident they would get berths in the al-shura (Majlis al-shura), the consultative council of the king, in the near future - may be in a decade,” Louise told IANS in a chat at her residence here.

The delegation was a soft diplomatic exercise to strengthen the people-to-people contact between the two countries and offer Indians a window to the changing Arab world after the signing of the Riyadh declaration during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit earlier this year.

The delegation consisted of Louise, Indraprastha College principal Babli Moitra Saraf, academic and human rights activist Madhu Kishwar, textile designer Madhu Rao Ayde, plastic surgeon Rashmi Taneja and journalist-writer Nilofar Suhrawardy.

The delegation was invited by Faisal Hassan Trad, the ambassador of Saudi Arabia to India, and the Saudi Journalists’ Association.

The amity tour might be reciprocated by a follow-up visit by a Saudi delegation to India next year when the Islamic kingdom led by King Abdullah hosts an Arabian showcase in India to further multilateral ties, she said.

“The idea behind the trip was to showcase the changing face of the Saudi women, given the pre-conceived notion people have of Arabian women as repressed, oppressed and subdued. I have to admit that I was surprised because as an Indian, one tends to be sympathetic to gender bias,” she said.

“India has also been the target of some pre-conceived notions in the West. We belong to a democracy and they follow the more orthodox Wahabi tradition of Islam - in which men and women are segregated in society. But it is quite clear that they have progressed immensely in the last 10 years,” she added.

The key factor in their progress is education, Louise said.

“We in India have been emphasising on education but the democratic way of doing so is much longer; in the kingdom it is much easier,” she said.

“The Saudi women have not officially thrown off the veil. The restrictions still remain and the segregation of the sexes persist, but since my political turf is a small village in Uttar Pradesh known as Kayamganj (from where she had contested an assembly election), I am not overtly perturbed,” she added.

“Our women have complete freedom and yet both Hindu and Muslim women in my constituency do not move without purdah. They are more comfortable working at home,” she said.

Louise said the delegation met some of the most “dynamic instructors” at the Princess Noura Bint Abdulrahman Univerity for Women, Prince Sultan University and entrepreneurs at the Ladies Branch-Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“We were invited to the Majlis-al-shura, the Islamic parliament, which has no woman as member. But it has 12 women consultants who are on the sub-committees in the capacity as advisers,” she said.

The nature of entrepreneurship among Arab women is changing, she said.

“The women are usually wealthy because they inherit a share of their father’s property. Earlier, they invested in land and real estate, but now they are diversifying. The women’s chamber of commerce helps them,” she added.

The delegation visited the Human Rights Society which is working against “minor weddings” in the villages. “Of the 40 members in the society, 10 are women,” she said.

The divorce rate is quite high “because the women are wealthy and independent to an extent”, she said.

“The Saudis have a new brief this time. They have to change the face of Saudi education in six years - right from the village level to education for both men and women,” Louise said.

The delegation visited almost every key government facility in Riyadh. They used the ‘abaiyas’, the traditional women head-dress gifted to them, while visiting the al-shura and the souks (markets).

“But we could not move out of Riyadh to Jeddah or Dammam.”

(Madhushree Chatterjee can be contacted at

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