Indo-Saudi Ties: Women Take Historic Steps

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent

The first visit of an all-women’s delegation from India to Saudi Arabia marks opening of a new chapter in bilateral relations between the two countries. Since inking of Riyadh Declaration during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit earlier this year and of Delhi Declaration during Custodian of Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah’s visit as the Chief Guest on India’s Republic Day, 2006, efforts have been made to further strengthen the two countries’ relations. The leaders decided to extend ties beyond oil trade, by promoting people-to-people interaction, with Indian women’s delegation being a part of this process. The six-member all-women delegation was invited to visit Riyadh (Oct 8-14).

The initiative was taken by Saudi envoy in Delhi, Faisal Hassan Trad, with Saudi Journalists Association playing host to Indian ladies in Riyadh. Representing different walks of life the delegation included:– Nilofar Suhrawardy (Journalist and Writer), Louise Khurshid (politician), Babli Moitra Saraf (Principal, Indraprastha College, Delhi University), Madhu Kishwar (Academic and Human Rights Activist), Madhu Rao Ayde (Textile Designer with a Business Concern- Sampada) and Rashmi Taneja (Plastic Surgeon). It was the first visit to Saudi Arabia of five ladies with Nilofar having been there earlier for Haj.

Ahead of the visit, highlighting its significance, Saudi envoy Trad said: “They will interact with Saudi women and visit women’s organizations in Riyadh with a view to improve understanding and establish better people-to-people contacts between the two countries. There is an urgent need to enable women of Saudi Arabia and India to meet each other, understand each other and resolve to work together for a better peaceful world.”

The visit has been viewed as a “success” from several angles. Demolishing stereotyped images projected about Saudi women, the Indian delegation described their visit as an “eye-opener.” Notwithstanding the opposition still prevalent in conservative sections, donning their abaiyas (covering them from head to foot), Saudi women are moving ahead at a fast speed.

Undeniably, as expressed by Trad, the status of women in Saudi Arabia has been subject to many great changes over the past few years. “The Saudi women are rendering valuable contributions in every sector in my country, and in all those domains once dominated by men,” he said. Formation of women’s wing in key institutions/organizations of the country in itself is reflective of this development. What is equally significant is that education, work and development seem to be key goal of women-wings of all institutions, the Indian delegation interacted with. These include Riyadh Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Human Rights Association, Prince Sultan University, King Abdul Aziz National Dialogue Centre and Saudi Journalists Association. The delegation also had discussions with Princess Jawhara Bint Fahd Al-Saud (Vice-Chancellor of Princess Noura University-for women), Princess Haila A. Al-Saud (General Manager, Ladies Branch- Chamber of Commerce & Industry), a meeting with Mr Abdul Aziz Khoja (Information & Culture Minister) and another with Indian envoy Mr Talmiz Ahmad. The two sides agreed that India and Saudi Arabia had massive potential to tap, with this visit – a major diplomatic step- opening avenues for them to consider and focus on.

Norah Abdullah Alfaiz, Vice Minister- Education, the first and only woman member of Saudi cabinet told Indian delegation that her ministry was focusing on “job-oriented” education courses.  The lady has smartly done away with possible apprehensions from conservative sections regarding work-culture in her ministry by combining offices of all ladies associated with her in one building. The women having joined the mainstream in a major way during the recent years has played a key role in enhancing their economic as well as social stature significantly, the Saudi ladies said. They accepted that earlier there had been apprehensions about the possible impact that this movement may have but now it has been accepted as an integral part of the Saudi socio-cultural fabric. In other words, Saudi ladies are looking forward to only move ahead and not backtrack from this path.

Interestingly, the Indian delegation also stepped on a new path by moving around in all places, including King Faisal Specialist Hospital, Kingdom Mall, National Museum, Indian International School and restaurants, without abaiyas. Viewing their photographs, published in Kingdom’s newspapers, without their abaiyas, several people hailed it as a “historic” step. It was the first Indian delegation visiting the Kingdom’s capital, without being compelled to use abaiyas. They used this dress, gifted to them, only during visits to Al-Shoura Council (Saudi Parliament) and souks (markets). The Al-Shoura still has only male members, but Saudi ladies are optimistic of entering their Parliament “in less than a decade’s time.” 

Even though Indian delegation’s interaction was with largely elite Saudi ladies, the latter conveyed that their respected departments were reaching out to women at all levels. While Norah’s projects include ensuring job-oriented education courses for all from kindergarten, human rights’ association cited instances of being approached by woman from different sections and the dialogue center shared the measures it was using to reach out within the kingdom as well as at international levels.

Viewing progress made by Saudi women against backdrop of Saudi society, the Indian delegation described it as “remarkable.” “So far, Saudi Arabia’s image was linked primarily with only oil and Haj but after the visit, the Indian delegation can say that Saudi women are moving ahead towards development!”


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