Amidst the current debate and controversy over gender mixing that is taking place in the country, this picture made it to the front pages of some local newspapers today. The picture shows King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan surrounded by female participants at the National Dialogue in the southern city of Najran. Although the photo was taken on April 11, it was only published today which may indicate the green light to publish it was only obtained recently. Al-Watan daily published what they called the story of the picture, along with the full names of the women who appear in it.
Although I have tried to register to participate at the 7th National Dialogue, I never received to a response from the organizers and therefore I have had to watch the dialogue on television.
This round of the National Dialogue, which took place earlier this week, focused on the dilemma of employment from different angles. The hottest topic, of course, was women’s employment. Now almost everyone agrees that we need to create more job opportunities for women; the disagreement, however, arises when it comes to how to approach and address this problem. More specifically, the disagreement is over how to define the proper work environment for women.
Two trends can be seen here. First, there are those who believe that in order to encourage more women to join the workforce we have to provide separate workplaces for them. They cite the example of the education sector, the field where 85% of working women in the country are in, and argue that the government should push in that direction.
However, I believe these guys are ignoring two important things: the fact that following education, the second field where most women are employed is the healthcare sector which is not segregated, and also the fact that many women chose to work at the education sector simply for the lack of other options, even if that choice means sometimes working in remote areas and being away from their families and putting themselves in danger of lethal car accidents.
The other trend regarding women’s employment in the dialogue argue that strict interpretations of religion and old social norms have only halted the development of the country and slowed down the growth of our economy. The insistence on providing separate work places for women, they say, is costly and impractical as it makes it difficult to keep a smooth workflow. Moreover, even if the government decided to go with that option, they won’t be able to force business to do the same.
Instead of separate workplaces, what they propose instead is writing new laws and regulation to create and maintain safe work environments that give equal opportunities and protect employees, especially women.
I expect this debate to continue, and I think we need to wait and see which argument of these two will attract more followers and prevail, or probably we will have to make some compromises and end up with a third way and a middle ground. The economic factor will be decisive here because, as one participant pointed out, the ever increasing living costs will mean that the one salary (currently the man’s) will no longer be enough to support a family.
I agree with Fatin Bundagji when she says that the idea of the national dialogue, even if it did not amount to obvious immediate results, is a good idea. And even though I was not invited to attend the dialogue at Makarem Ballroom in the Marriott, it was certainly refreshing for me to follow it and see my countrymen and women debate and take part in this conversation, which signifies, among many things, a change in mindset and a newfound respect for diversity, as well as a better understanding between the different faction in our society.