[Jakarta, LttW] Conservative Saudi Arabia, with its brand of what’s controversially known as Wahhabism, isn’t seldom referenced by Sunni Muslim leaders in policy making. Among the ongoing debates is the leadership of women in Islam.
Saudi Arabia has been notorious for banning certain rights for women. The most infamous of which is the right to drive.
Yet it appears change is taking place. In 2014, a woman by the name of Sarah al-Suhaimi extended the small club of women leaders in the country. She became the first female chief of NCB Capital, a Saudi investment bank. The year after was the first time Saudi women were allowed to vote. It was also the first time ever for at least 17 women to get elected to public office.
Not everything, however, has changed. Those elected public officials were not even allowed to speak to male voters. Even today, women are still obligated to cover up in public, and female drivers are yet to be approved.
But recent developments shine a new light. This past week, a woman by the name of Rania Nashar was named chief executive of Samba Financial Group, Saudi Arabia’s third largest bank by assets. The week prior, aforementioned Sarah al-Suhaimi took on the lead of Saudi Stock Exchange.
These developments came with an economic reform set out to bandage damages from low oil prices. Within the reform is a plan to increase the proportion of women in the workforce from current 22 percent to 30 percent by 2030.
Speaking of change in strict, male-dominated countries in the region, the Saudis are not the only ones opening up to women. Nearby United Arab Emirates (UAE) appointed 22-year-old Shamma Al Mazrui as Minister of State for Youth in 2016. Not only is she another woman leader in the region, she is also the youngest minister in the world.
This brings up a question on the ongoing debate about women leading in Islam. If the so-called model for Sunni Islam is able to adjust according to current context, perhaps it is a reminder for fellow Sunni leaders to also observe context when designing policies.
Author: Garry Poluan
Garry Pawitandra Poluan was born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia.