Princess Ameera Al- Taweel and her advocacy of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s Princess Ameera Al- Taweel, the only wife of the progressive Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has recently traveled throughout the United Kingdom and the United States to speak with media groups (e.g. Times, the Guardian, NPR, CNN, etc.) about the image of women in Saudi Arabia, calling for change. This past year, Saudi Arabia has been highlighted in terms of their women, from women finally getting the right to vote, to protesting their driving ban, to the recent outlaw of men from working in lingerie shops. However, leadership roles in advocating gender relations and female rights has been quiet, so it was a surprise to read about Princess Ameera in Forbes about her work in promoting a better image of her country.

At only 29 years old, Princess Ameera outside of the Kingdom does not personify the image that media has posted about the country’s women, who are usually described as unsocial, unable to speak their mind, un-interactive with the opposite sex, takes a backseat in social interactions, and are forced to wear the very black, very symbolic abbayah in public. Not only does Princess Ameera walk the talk and dress the part, but she comes from the very family, the Saud family, that has molded the nation to what it is today- hyper conservative and unable to give women the same rights and places in society as men.

Of course her actions (participating in international forums such as the Clinton Global Initiative, speaking about allowing women to drive in NBC, etc.) has had its backlash, and from her family. The princess’s brother-in-law, Prince Khalid bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz stated:

…Our family honor is a red line and if you don’t respect this honor, then we do…I now tell you that if you do not come back to your senses and stop your deviation, then our response will be very severe and harsh next time without prior warning.

Anushay Hossain’s response illustrates my own sentiments:

Using a man’s wife to publicly threaten and blackmail him? Sounds like plot from a classic (sexist) movie. I mean, are men in 2012 seriously still this insecure that they have to pin their prestige on women and use them as pawns in what is obviously a much larger issue of power?

It is understandable that there will be reactions, and unfavorable ones at that. However, what is disturbing is that the reactions can include further demeaning sentiments, such as here, where women is linked to a family’s honor- a concept often used for some of the worst types of violence committed upon women in the Middle East (i.e. honor killings). Furthermore, the brother-in-law does not even speak directly with Princess Ameera but instead, gears his anger towards her husband who allowing his wife to behave such a way, as if she is the property of her husband.

Princess Ameera is a refreshing figure to see taking a public stance from the Middle East. Her intelligence in her approach and mannerism in the mainstream breaks stereotypes about women in the region. The support that she receives from her husband and the fact that he is using her to promote modern ideas about women’s role in society should generate applause (it is working).  It also proves that while this fight for Saudi Arabia’s women is going to be a long and difficult one, it is not hopeless.

(Which) women’s employment in Saudi Arabia as a result of banning men from working in lingerie stores (?)

There has been a lot of discussion lately on how opportunities for female employment are beginning to increase, especially with the recent ban on male employment in lingerie stores in Saudi Arabia. However, it must be notes that the applicants for most of the job vacancies are from South Asian and Southeast Asian migrant laborers, not Saudi Arabian women who only compose  7% of the work force in the Kingdom (government figures). According to the Labor Ministry, over 28,000 women have already applied for the jobs in lingerie stores, but most are South Asian migrant women. In this respect,the opportunities to work in stores rather than as domestic workers is certainly a positive step for the thousands of female labor migrants in the country. In Saudi Arabia, migrant laborers already make up a majority of their work force, and this is not just associated with the cleaners, construction workers, etc. Most of the country’s doctors, engineers, and other technical professionals are also foreigners, often recruited heavily from some of the top agencies abroad.

While more Saudi women are getting educated in the country, the scope for their actual participation in the labor market remains  abysmal. Female employment is not going up for Saudi women, and they are not going to suddenly apply for thousands of shop assistant jobs.