A government's selection of a woman to oversee female education would hardly make headlines in many countries. But this is a first in Saudi Arabia, one of the world's most restrictive places for women. As experience in the region shows, even such a minor step can shift the political sands toward more equal opportunity for the sexes.
Steady but small steps toward women's rights and freedoms are necessary in a culture with a strong history of laws and Islamic practices that are patriarchal and define social roles. Sadly, women may still require a male's permission to marry, divorce, or work; domestic violence is a serious problem.
But the Middle East is not the same place for women that it was even five years ago.
That at least is the conclusion of a study released last week by Freedom House, a Washington-based group which tracks liberty's advance (or retreat) around the globe. From 2004 through last year, all six countries in the study advanced women's rights, making "small but notable gains" in political, economic, and legal rights.
Of the countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates), Kuwait and the UAE made the most progress. In Kuwait, for instance, women voted and ran for the first time in local and national elections in 2006. (Recent regional elections in next-door Iraq required 30 percent of candidates be women.)
Saudi Arabia lags far behind its neighbors. Women there live in a gender-segregated and unequal society. They may not vote, must seek male approval to travel, and are subject to veil enforcement by religious police. But even the kingdom has inched forward, allowing women to study law, check into hotels alone, and obtain their own identification cards.
Saudi King Abdullah went further over the weekend with a vigorous shake-up among senior leaders, including sacking the conservative head of the Commission of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which oversees the religious police. His first female appointee as a cabinet official may appear to be to a "soft" post, but a glance around the region shows that women's education acts as a powerful catalyst in demanding more rights.
For instance, educational opportunity, combined with the Internet, are changing the views and expectations of women in the Muslim theocracy of Iran. More than 60 percent of university students in Iran are women. Iranian women are leaving abusive and unwanted marriages in increasing numbers, and have launched Internet campaigns to overturn misogynistic laws. In Qatar and the UAE, women outnumber men in university by 3 to 1 – a sure-fire source of pressure for more rights.
So is the increased presence of women in the workforce. In Kuwait, for instance, more than half of working-age women have jobs, and that feeds greater financial and emotional independence.
In the absence of democracy, of freedom to form advocacy groups, of independent judiciaries, and of radical rethinking of cultural norms, women are making slow gains in the Middle East. But that pace is bound to pick up as they experience more opportunity – changing the economy and character of the region, perhaps even reducing terrorist tendencies.