Hoda Al-Helaissi, female Saudi academic and member of the Shura—the Kingdom’s Consultative Assembly—looks at the transformation of her country with a decidedly optimistic eye. In this interview, she ponders over her country’s economic and societal progress, a nation that yearns for balance between modernity and conservatism.
How is the role of women in Saudi Arabia changing?
Hoda – We are in the process of changing and evolving. It’s largely thanks to our youth. Women’s roles are also changing, because we are not stagnant.
Through education, we have seen that a lot of women want to hold higher and higher positions of power, and also want to be a part of the decision-making process. Making nation-wide decisions on the policy-, society-, or the family-level…There’s an ongoing evolution, which can be witnessed, and it is very important for women.
Can you describe Riyadh?
Hoda – It’s a city full of change, and motion. It’s a modern city, with a typically Saudi identity, where the locals represent an older Saudi Arabia. This is important because I believe that, even with our modernity, we shouldn’t change who we are. We respect our laws. We respect our identity. We respect our religion and who we are, our roots.
It’s very important for young people to understand this. Living in a modern society that is globalized, does not mean forgetting what was important to the generations before us, and those ahead of us as well.
This change, how is it coming around?
Hoda – The past 10 years have brought about big changes. That’s for sure. But over the past 3 or 4 years the changes have been unbelievable, especially because the young people are pushing the changes forward.
The activities, events, and all that is quite commonplace in Europe or the West, have started to make big waves in our country. And it’s interesting because practically in all sectors, we find quick adoption by the youth.
How can modernity and religion coexist?
Hoda – I think it’s very important to understand that religion is a part of our identity. It’s not something that will prevent us from evolving, changing, and being modern. I believe that it’s completely feasible. Especially when you understand that our religion is not an extremist one. If we find a middle ground, we can adapt and succeed.
Tell us about the three priorities of Vision 2030.
Hoda – Women, the youth, and the economy. I believe those are the three keywords that will change Saudi Arabia. But it will take time. It will take as long as it takes to reach a certain goal, or move in a certain direction. The youth, because 60% of our country is under 30 years old. Women because they are growing steadily stronger, more capable, and more skilled. In particular, 52% of those enrolled in higher education are women.
And the economy, simply because we can no longer live in the luxury that existed before. And so, women must work. And the economy will push people to become entrepreneurs or to become more involved in their field of work.
What issues is the Shura tackling?
Hoda – Mentalities are changing, that’s for sure. Issues related to women’s rights—of course—will take a little longer, like the issue of women driving. It will come. It’s coming, for sure.
But we must adapt and understand the importance of tradition in the typical mindset, not only in the country but also that of those working in the Shura. It is important to understand that it’s up to these people; whether or not to effect change. So, it’s a matter of time, but societal change is speeding up.
How have stereotypes of the Saudi women evolved over time?
Hoda – I believe the most difficult and the most dangerous thing in the world today is to live by stereotypes. Unfortunately, that is a part of human nature. I remember in the 60s, Eastern women were considered exotic: there was an American show called “I Dream of Jeannie” where women wore multicolored headscarves. Quite the little magician.
Over time, this image has been replaced by a very dark image of the Eastern woman. In a black veil, with her abaya.
Obviously voiceless. Abused, unable to go out, or work, or to do anything. These stereotypes are dangerous to us, because they don’t reflect reality.
Sure, there are some traditional, super-religious women who prefer to stay in this limited framework. But the majority, and especially the young people, flat-out refuse this kind of life.