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Saudi Women: Creating a girls’ council in one of the most conservative regions in Saudi is a great step and much needed. Yet there were no women seen on stage at the launch, adding more to the contradictions in people’s mind.

Through Vision 2030, the Saudi Arabian government wants everything to be better. The work and life situation of women is a major item on that list.

Even in the current tough economic transition period, things still look positive for women. Three women were given high positions in Saudi public and private sectors, big promises by the government to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22% to 30%, opening up the sports sector for women – all were positive indicators raising hopes that the country may be moving toward loosening some of its restrictions on women. Yet, a state policy of gender segregation between unrelated men and women is still strictly enforced. Maybe that should have indicated that the situation isn’t really that positive.

Against this backdrop, it was an encouraging sign when Saudi Arabia wanted to show off its inaugural girls’ council in al-Qassim province, a hard core religious centre. However, at the launch, no women participants were on the panel. Pictures released to mark the first Qassim Girls Council meeting showed 13 men on stage, and not a single female. Well, they were linked via video from the room next door – usually how meetings between men and women are conducted in Saudi Arabia. Only recently, the Shoura Council has allocated a space for women in the main chamber.

The launch was headed by Al Qassim’s Governor Prince Faisal bin Mishal bin Saud, who expressed his happiness at the conference as a pilot project in Saudi Arabia. “In the Qassim region, we look at women as sisters to men, and we feel a responsibility to open up more and more opportunities that will serve the work of women and girls,” he said according to the BBC website. Interesting also is that the council is chaired by the governor’s wife, Princess Abir bint Salman.

This is no Monty Python sketch, but it can only happen in Saudi Arabia. A Girls Council meeting in which only men are shown to the public to speak on the rights and discuss needs of Saudi females. Seriously? One can guess that maybe it took place under the slogan “my guardian knows what’s best for me”. Or that women are incapable (emotionally because they are weak, a very popular argument among Saudis) of deciding for themselves? There are millions of interpretations from a Saudi point of view that can be given for such a happening. All of them don’t make sense. Such arguments only reassure the contradictory pattern of thinking that is clearly reflected in most Saudis’ attitudes.

I believed that the country is trying to move forward developing and had great hopes that Vision 2030 would at least succeed in daring to break down walls of traditions existing in the society. But the only way to explain a meeting of a female council without female participation is to say that there is progress, but Saudi culture must nevertheless be persevered. Religiously it wouldn’t be the reason, because in Makkah when people surround the Kasbah, they are mixed without segregation.

None of these traditions are religiously meaningful, nor do they make sense logically. How can Vision 2030 be a success if Saudi Arabia is still insisting on meaningless practices and behaviour? Who will change and how can we make the change happen if we don’t start within ourselves? The Quran says “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of people until they change what is in themselves.”