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How a princess can help Saudi women find their voice

It's time for Saudi women to beat conservative clerics at their own game by publishing op-eds, using Twitter, and blogging. I know just the woman to help them get started: Princess Ameerah al-Taweel. She should champion a successful US model, The OpEd Project.

By Qanta A. Ahmed / January 22, 2013

Chelsea Clinton (L) greets Princess Ameerah al-Taweel of Saudi Arabia at the Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York, September 25, 2012. Op-ed contributor Qanta A. Ahmed writes that Princess Ameerah is 'in an ideal position to build on' a solid foundation of well-educated Saudi women and launch them 'into the socially networked sphere of citizen journalism, micro-blogging, and self-publishing.'

Jason Reed/Reuters/File

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For Saudi women, the shortest route from the back seat to the driver’s seat is looking them in the face: the opinion section of a media outlet. Saudi women, among the most suppressed in the world, must discover that public voice is public power.

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Certainly, Saudi women are challenging the status quo – whether protesting the ban on driving or lobbying for their right to practice law. Indeed, last week 30 Saudi women were appointed to the kingdom’s Shura Council, the first official political positions for women in the country’s history. But it is the kingdom’s religious clerics who have corralled the forms of opinion-making – staking their claim in traditional and social media.

Their views are widely heard, reinforcing the country’s harsh sharia law which mandates segregation of the sexes in public and particularly punitive restrictions on women and girls, who may not work, travel, marry, or do much else without the permission of a male guardian.

It’s high time Saudi women give the clerics a run for their riyal. They can do that by following an American media example set by Katie Orenstein, the visionary founder of The OpEd Project. Her organization seeks to increase the number of women thought-leaders in many fields who can exercise their public voice on a wide spectrum of issues, often through the “op-ed” – the journalism term for opinion pieces such as this one.

I can attest to the influence of op-eds: After publishing my former experiences as a doctor in Saudi Arabia in op-eds, I’ve been invited to address UN delegates before a panel this March to speak about Saudi women and their human rights.

Through The OpEd Project, print and broadcast journalists and, eventually, alumni of the project, mentor women and minority opinion-shapers so they can get their views heard. In six short years, op-eds by women in leading US commentary outlets have increased by 40 percent, with Ms. Orenstein's project leading the way. The Op-Ed Project is planning its first international venture, in Norway. Let’s hope Saudi women are next.

I know just the Saudi woman who can champion such a project: Princess Ameerah al-Taweel. This young, stylish, determined woman is vice chairwoman of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation – named for her prince husband – which promotes education philanthropy and interfaith dialogue.

Her royal highness has assumed the mantle of change for women with a passion. In interviews with CNN, Forbes, and at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City, she said that the new generation of Saudi women not only wants to drive, they also want to contribute fully to their country. She even speaks of the power of the op-ed as a way for women to coordinate their efforts – just as the clerics do.

She advises "evolution, not revolution,” but at a much faster pace than in the past. Hers is a savvy and pragmatic approach to present-day Saudi Arabia, where 60 percent of the population is under 30 but conservative clerics are entrenched.

Change so far has been glacially slow, though King Abdullah has pushed harder for women in recent years than any other previous ruler. In 2009, he allowed women and men to share classes at a university, and granted women the right to run in municipal elections in 2015.

Princess Ameerah recognizes that opposition to women’s reforms is based in tradition and culture, but more specifically in the powerful lobby of the conservative Saudi religious establishment. The clerics repulse efforts toward liberal reforms even when instituted by the monarch himself.

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