As millions of women the world over marked Valentine’s Day with gifts from their loved ones, one woman – in a country that has banned the holiday and labels it a ‘sin’ – has good reason to never forget February 14, 2009.
Meet Noura Al Fayez, teacher extraordinaire, a product of the US education system, who last Saturday became the first ever woman deputy minister in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Bloggers around the globe were abuzz as soon as the news of Al Fayez broke, with thousands of ‘Twitterers’ microblogging about the new official literally minutes after networks, including Saudi state-run Channel One, reported it on Saturday.
Briton @lizaquincy wrote:
She added in a later tweet:
“For sure it's a giant step for ‘womankind’ in Saudi Arabia, but really —- how can it work when women's right are often violated there?”
American @jeffwarrens responded to Liza’s ‘tweet’ by saying:
Another American Twitter user @Jacob1207 said simply:
King Abdullah on Saturday also dismissed the chief of religious police and a cleric, who condoned killing the owners of TV networks that broadcast ‘immoral’ content.
What has been widely reported as “the shake-up”, the king’s first since coming to power in August 2005, included Al Fayez’s appointment as deputy minister for girls’ education – by far the highest government position any Saudi woman has attained.
But as the news of the kingdom’s first ever female minister continued to sink in, global bloggers are fast expressing their concern for Al Fayez.
They are quick to question whether or not she would have any influence in a country, where women still face severe discrimination in many aspects of their lives – including education, employment and the justice system.
Eman Al Nafjan, the woman behind Saudi Woman’s Weblog hailed Al Fayez’s new appointment calling it a leap of progress for her country.
“Today is definitely a happy day. Saudi Arabia has made a leap of progress. King Abdullah surprised everyone yesterday morning with major overhauls to the judicial and educational system. And the biggest bombshell of all was that a woman was appointed as head of girl’s education. This is a position that has always belonged to the longest bearded most conservative muttawa possible and now to have a woman in it is FANTASTIC, notwithstanding the fact that the woman who was chosen is a moderate Muslim, educated and a highly qualified woman. She has extensive experience in girl’s education. I doubt that that they could have found anyone more qualified.”
Eman, who herself is a teacher in Riyadh, also noted that Al Fayez’s photograph in a local newspaper shows her face uncovered.
“Now there’s a lot of buzz that of course she wouldn’t be this progressive unless she was a non-tribal woman, probably originating from Jordan or Palestine and she definitely is divorced because no “real” Saudi in his right mind would allow his wife to appear publicly with her face uncovered. I am very proud to say that actually she belongs to one of the biggest tribes in Saudi, Bani Tameem from Al Nawayser part of it and she is from Al Washim here in Najd. Her husband very much supports her and is proud of her.”
Blogger, Rasha, who is also from Saudi Arabia, expressed her hope on MidEastYouth.com that this would be a turning point for her country.
“King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia surprised the nation with a shakeup that is considered the biggest change that happened in this country in 20 years.
“Noura Al-Fayez, an official at the Saudi Institute for Public Administration, was elevated to the new post of deputy minister of women’s education; the first time a woman has been appointed a deputy minister in the history of this country. Al-Fayez’s appointment appeared to be the king’s response to increased lobbying from women’s rights groups against discrimination.
“Other changes have been done in several ministries and hopefully this will be a turning point for this country. However, actual changes do not happen overnight. yet this is a step in the right direction I believe and I hope to see the fruits of all positive changes in my lifetime ..”
Reme Ahmad, whose blog OpEd took a break from Malaysian politics to write about Al Fayez in his post Saudi Appoints First Woman Minister.
“Alright, so she is a DEPUTY Minister. OK lah. Better than nothing. I wonder whether the Saudis would soon allow women to drive…
“As for women ministers, in other Muslim countries, I am glad to say this is a non-issue. We had two Battling Begums in Bangladesh, both of whom were prime ministers. One of them is now back as PM, fighting off the other. In Pakistan, Benazir (Bhutto) is still a top name despite her demise a year ago. In Southeast Asia, we have ministers-in-bujakurongs (different from bananas-in-pajamas) in Indonesia and Malaysia for a long time.
“Still, hurray for Saudi Arabia, the country that guards the two holy mosques.”
American Merv Benson, author of Prairie Pundit, believes the shake-up was necessary.
“(Sheik Ibrahim al-Ghaith, former head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice) and his thugs were a continuing source of embarrassment to the Saudis. They arrested a business woman for having coffee at a Starbucks with a business associate. In another case they arrested an immigrant who was assisting a sickly neighbor.
“Perhaps their most heinous act led to the death of girl students who were not allowed to escape a fire in a dormitory because they did not have escorts or “proper” attire.
“This appears to be a wise move by the Saudi King.”
The Cylinder noted that King Abdullah’s shake-up represented “tiny baby steps”.
“Saudi Arabia has appointed the kingdom’s first woman minister in a cabinet reshuffle that also saw the dismissal of four ministers and heads of the powerful religious police and judicial bodies. King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz appointed Noura Al Faiz as deputy minister for women’s education, in a move considered a milestone in Saudi Arabia.
“Really tiny baby steps … and such a long way to go!”
Sabha999 wrote on Religion Compass that the world is definitely going to keep a close eye on women’s rights following the latest appointment of Al Fayez.
“While the religious police were busy with detaining salesmen for selling Valentine gifts, King Abdullah removed the chief of the religious police on the banned holiday.
“Educational changes too are expected, with the appointment of Al Fayez, the first woman ever to serve on the Saudi cabinet, as deputy for girl’s education. All of this is believed to shake up the religious establishment.”
It is a known fact that it is against the law to celebrate Valentine’s Day in Saudi Arabia. Each year, religious police make their rounds to make sure that no one marks the banned holiday.
Officers randomly check stores for gifts and other items that are red or suggest the holiday and have them removed from shelves. Each year, a number of sales personnel are detained for days for breaking the said law.
Valentine's Day, banned because of its origins as a celebration of the 3rd century Christian martyr, is also targeted because unmarried men and women cannot be alone together.