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February 19th, 2009
First Female Cabinet Minister

Rawan Jabaji

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia shook up his kingdom by boldly appointing the first female minister to his government cabinet earlier this week.

Norah al-Faiz is now the deputy minister of women’s education — the most senior role ever held by a woman in Saudi Arabia.

Though al-Faiz occupies a new post, she is still very much bound by the stringent laws that dictate how women live within the kingdom. Like all women in Saudi Arabia, al-Faiz is only permitted to do what her closest male relative allows, based on the guardianship system.

Al-Faiz, who received her master’s degree in education from Utah State University, is fully cognizant of the challenges ahead of her, stating that the “guardianship system” is the first thing that should be removed by the new Saudi government.

During my own time living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in the late 90s, I recall needing my father — my closest male relative — for anything that required me leaving our compound walls. From driving me to the mall (women aren’t permitted to drive) to accompanying me to a doctor’s appointment, I needed a male escort for everything. And while there is no law stating that a male must accompany a female to the doctor (though a male often has to authorize all procedures at the doctor’s office), females are not allowed to interact with unrelated males—and almost all doctors in Saudi Arabia are males.

Even when it came down to something as simple as getting a shawarma sandwich, I would have to ask my father to order because it was frowned upon for women to enter the restaurant and interact with men. My mother and I would wait in the car as my father walked into the restaurant crammed with men ordering for a parking lot filled with hungry women.

Putting all shawarma aside, women aren’t even permitted to testify in a criminal court unless there isn’t a male witness and the testimony is related to a personal matter. And even then, the testimony of a woman only counts for half that of man’s testimony, leaving it up to the court to decide whether or not it is to be accepted as valid.

Saudi feminist and writer, Wajeha al-Huwaider, said it is unclear if al-Faiz will have any real power, or if she will follow the path of other Saudi women who had been appointed to lower councils but were never heard from.

But Haifa Jamal Al-Lail, dean of Effat College in Jeddah, is more optimistic. “This is not just about having the first woman deputy minister. It’s about having more women in important positions. Al-Fayez’s presence in the Ministry of Education will make women’s voices heard.”

For a country where, under Saudi law, women are considered the property of men, appointing al-Faiz as the first female minister, though she’s only in charge of women’s education, is a big step in the right direction.

WIDE ANGLE’s film The Saudi Question looks at whether the kingdom will find a path to democratic reform or succumb to a rising tide of Islamic extremism.

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