Riyadh: I have often had to justify my choice to live life and work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is easy to get defensive when asked to answer questions such as:
“What does it feel like working as a woman in Saudi Arabia?”
“Do you feel oppressed as a woman?”
“How can you work in a country where you are not allowed to drive?”
The problem with these types of questions is we are having the wrong conversation.
My answers usually go something like this:
“Working in Saudi Arabia as a woman brings out the best in me; the Kingdom demands that I be thoughtful, standard-setting, and bold in voice and views.”
“My experiences in board rooms and government bureaus in Saudi Arabia have always been moments of respect and interest towards what I bring to the table.”
“My life and work in Saudi Arabia is a choice that comes with honoring the rule of law I have opted into. Mobility is important, and I know I will see the day that female mobility becomes the law of the land of this Kingdom.”
Do my answers surprise you? Are you open to receiving them while setting aside your expectations of how I must experience the Kingdom and respond to your inquiries?
I cannot begin to express my excitement and admiration for the new energy that will take over the streets of the Kingdom, starting June 24.
But I have to say, my earnestness is dampened by the many articles and op-eds in the international press that are bombarding my inbox and social media feeds. Why are we, the international community of nation leaders, diplomats, correspondents, bloggers, and women leaders, not celebrating this important milestone for the Kingdom and Saudi women with compassion and due respect? Rather, the international rhetoric is a broken record of criticism towards the Crown Prince and the country’s human rights record, alongside a championing of activists and driving ban trailblazers who have been credited with a slam-dunk victory.
Rather than celebrating a critical milestone for the Kingdom, we are instead stripping away the excitement and replacing it with an unapologetic narrow conversation that does not set the stage for a new culture of diplomacy and understanding. We are not giving Saudi Arabia and its women the deserved agency to share with us the personal and national value and enrichment that comes with taking the driver’s seat.
Let me tell you what comes to mind when I think of women driving in my second home: I feel the pulsating energy of my fellow Arab women as they continue to take ownership — not just of the driver seats of their cars — but the driver seats of their country’s human and economic engines. The roar of these engines is endearing. I see an infinite opportunity for economic prosperity with the opening up of new growth avenues, fed by the power of mobility. I see ripple effects with positive magnitudes that remain to be seen; a call out to watch this space.
But let us also make no mistake. Taking the driver’s seat does not grant the women of Saudi Arabia with a declarative permission to now take charge. Yes, this milestone is cataclysmic. But the Saudi Arabian woman already serves, she already influences, and she already commands in key positions of leadership with much strength and success.
I would like to challenge the international community, beginning with my fellow Lebanese, to take this milestone for what it is: a national transformation that will feed a new regional and global order. Take it in, because it is good and it is right. And kick-out that expected habit of criticism and suspicion, and replace it with your own answer to this question: What other country in the world has been able to transform so meaningfully and so quickly, while gaining more stability, leadership, and potential for growth in the process?
Let us be honest and say it for what it is: Made in Saudi Arabia does get to be called a model we can all learn from, appreciate, and reach out to for more.
I am most grateful to Annahar for honoring this milestone by celebrating Saudi Arabia’s new women drivers and rule of law in its pages over the coming days. Its online and print pages bring to you a plethora of perspectives, intelligence, and aspiration from the bustling streets that are now home to women drivers.
I really must thank my dear Saudi sisters, friends, and exceptional leaders who have so kindly offered their wisdom and time to share with you their personal experiences and excitement for their country. In their voices, you will hear for yourself that we have much to cheerlead and look forward to. You will also hear that this is the beginning of much more to come. This is a powerful milestone we invite you to share in, with new conversations we invite you to become a part of.
Lynn Zovighian is the Managing Director of The Zovighian Partnership
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