Muslim Women’s Fund: “Engines of Change” in Saudi Arabia – Women, Youth & Technology

Date: August 2012

Dear Friends,

Greetings! Just returned from a fascinating, whirlwind trip to Saudi Arabia, which I would describe in one word as a “schizophrenic” place, straddling modernity and antiquity simultaneously. My journey started in Jeddah, a port on the Red Sea, an old trading city, which has the openness and tolerance of San Francisco and the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley. Compared to Jeddah’s free-spiritedness, Riyadh, my next and final stop, felt more like a constrained and conservative capitol city, dominated by its tribal, Bedouin cultural heritage.

Vibrant Women Opinion Leaders – Work on Key Issues Despite Challenges

I was most fortunate to meet an exciting group of women from a wide spectrum of society, which included cutting-edge movers and shakers to royal princesses – all of whom were stellar and intrigued by the Muslim Women’s Fund.

Samar FatanyMy journey started in Jeddah with Samar Fatany, whom I had met last year in Kuala Lumpur at the Women’s Islamic Initiative for Spirituality and Equality (WISE) conference where we launched the Muslim Women’s Fund (MWF).

Samar Fatany is a radio celebrity. She anchors the Saudi version of “60 minutes,” called “Situn Dakshita,” and has been the chief broadcaster in English for 30 years at Jeddah Broadcasting Station, affiliated with the Ministry of
Culture and Information Samar was my guide, and door opener to Saudi Arabia’s complex political and social landscape.
She explained: It is a society divided between hardliners who are anti-change, anti modern and anti women on the one side – skeptics and liberals who constitute the other two blocks. Leadership is derived from at least three hierarchies – religious, royal and business. Samar, who understands the intricacies and dueling polarities of her country, says, King Abdullah supports women, women’s employment and a non-segregated life style and he even enjoys the support of some religious leaders.
Levers of Change
With the keen eye of a veteran journalist, Samar has her finger on the pulse of Saudi society and is optimistic about new engines for change – women and youth. And Samar is not alone. Women can do the impossible, said Shehnaa, a 28-year-old mother of an infant, who accompanied me to Makkah for Umrah, the mini pilgrimage, even as she played with her cell phone. In addition to women and youth, I believe technology will be the third driver of social and economic change in the three-legged stool of development and progress for women’s rights and economic empowerment in Saudi Arabia.I was blown away by Samar’s warmth, hospitality and caretaking. Indians pride themselves in being very gracious with foreign guests and we know that the Pakistanis trump us, but Arab hospitality is in a whole other league. I was very fortunate to experience it through Samar, her husband Khaled, Editor of Arab News, (English daily) and their daughter Lina, who believe it or not, is a coach of a competitive, professional girls basketball league in Jeddah. She blew away one of my stereotypes of Saudi women on my first evening.
pinion Leader Lunch for MWF in Jeddah
To introduce the MWF, Samar invited 15 of her friends to lunch. They were extraordinary opinion leaders and included the “who’s who” of Jeddah society. The high profile group consisted of physicians, academics, NGO leaders, columnists and editors, as well as three entrepreneurs who are the only women ever elected or nominated to the nationally preeminent Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry board (JCCI) in its 60 year history. Intrigued by the mission, vision and global reach of the Fund, the guests asked insightful questions. The opinion leaders around the table educated me about the complexities and nuances of Saudi society, particularly in the domain of social issues and non-profit organizations. A fascinating discussion ensued and the number one issue that concerned the women at the table was terrorism. They don’t seem that different than us, do they? In fact, Samar had said to me earlier that she believes the danger to Islam is from within the faith and not from outside.Other highlighted issues included: the lack of civil society, a dearth of NGOs and inadequate governance supporting charitable giving. Fatin Bundagji, President of Think N link Cooperation and a recent Eisenhower fellow, spoke of the Jeddah floods in late October, 2009 and what she discovered in her own backyard: I have never seen poverty in India or Africa that equates with the poverty in Saudi Arabia. Many of the women, who were clearly seasoned fund raisers, spoke of donors’ dampened appetites for charitable giving post-9/11, which was based on a fear of being associated with an NGO scandal, stirred by donations being misdirected, misused or linked to terrorism.
Some Paradoxes that Struck Me:

  • audi Arabia’s dualities and polarities mirrored in some ways the Arabic language where every word means something and its exact opposite as well. One needs translators to explain the cultural context and subtext of people, their family, community, tribe, prominence, spheres of influence and networks – and this is equally true of royalty.
  • Integration of the sexes in Makkah at Islam’s holiest pilgrimage site, where the grand mosque and the Kaaba are located. I was a bit stunned and incredulous at walking alongside men from the far corners of the earth as we circumambulated around the Kaaba. Integration of the sexes at the Kabba, a holy site, and segregation at the conference, a professional space? All very interesting and paradoxical.
  • The incongruousness at the Global Competitive Forum* in Riyadh where Margaret Brennan, a CNN anchor was the moderator on the first day of the conference, even as the hall was partitioned for men and women, as custom required. The mutawa, or religious police, were strictly enforcing segregation of the sexes and my husband, Carl, was texting me to cover up and be careful. On the second day, I found myself in a predicament, being denied access to the co-ed section for several hours until a member of the SAGIA staff personally escorted me through the barricade, negotiating on my behalf with women guards so that I could reconnect with Carl.
  • How down to earth the princesses are and how strategic they are in setting the “gold standard” for their foundations. They understand the need to build institutional capacity for NGOs, provide management and leadership training, and develop tools and systems to facilitate program tracking and impact.
  • Two faces of Saudi society: When I entered Saudi Arabia, the first two questions immigration officials asked me were, “Are you married?” and “Do you have children.” I thought these were odd questions but I was traveling alone and a woman traveling alone must still be an anomaly. Compare this face of the Saudi government to a comment made by one of the princesses at lunch on my last day, when she complained vociferously about her friend being denied an epidural during labor and how her mother and husband conspired against her desire to get the pain-relieving shot. The princess said that her friend should have said to them: “This is my body and you don’t have the right to make that decision for me.”
Challenges and Opportunities:
The big question for MWF is: are there donors who will support MWF’s global vision and mission for Muslim women’s education and empowerment? I think there may well be some support for MWF but there are significant logistical challenges since Saudi citizens are prohibited from donating to causes abroad by government regulation post-9/11. So, we will have to be creative.In the meantime, we will be trying to harness all the good will and interest expressed by the women opinion leaders and determine whether we can start an advisory council in Saudi Arabia. Samar’s sister, Afnan Fatany (who keeps her maiden name like her sister, as per Saudi custom) offered to chair the MWF advisory. When I asked her if the women at the table worked together on key causes, she said, “Never.” I got the picture. They work in silos on their own issues. So I asked if MWF would be a cause they could all rally around and she thought it was a winner idea and instantly offered to chair the committee. So we will explore this opportunity in Jeddah. In Riyadh, where I met with two princesses, I am told by a reliable friend who is well connected in Saudi Arabia that these two princesses quintessentially understand the needs of nascent NGOs (of which there are just a few) and they have a commitment to social change and development. Both princesses expressed some interest in helping promote MWF in their local circles.Professionally, this was the most exciting and insightful foreign trip of my life and it was all because Samar guided me strategically, opening key doors and I will forever be grateful to her. If I may be personal for a moment, my greatest surprise came when I found myself with at least five people who knew my family from India. My hostess’ family knew members of my extended family and Mariam, who sat next to me at the women’s lunch in Jeddah, said to me “My parents got married at the Chinoy home in Poona!” That was my grandparents’ home, which I visited monthly and where I spent hot summer holidays – talk about one degree of separation!Stay tuned and check out MWF coverage in Arab News on Jan. 25, 2010. Warm wishes,
Shahnaz*This is a high powered conference, run by the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA), led by Governor Amr Al Dabbagh and directed at enhancing Saudi Arabia’s business friendly image in the world. The country’s business friendly ranking has risen from # 67 to #13 in recent years.

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