Anne Doyle, Author, Global Speaker and Contributor to Forbes Woman recently traveled to Saudi Arabia to teach leadership lessons at the Prince Mohammad University. As she prepared her messages about her personal leadership journey, the themes of her book, “Powering Up Women,” and communications skills, Anne was asked to also speak at two universities about the use of social media.
Armed with her own social media experience and a presentation deck created by Hay There Social Media, Anne delivered our lessons and insight about the use of social technology in the States for individuals, corporations, non-profits and small businesses (our speciality!). What an honor!
The following is the full recap Anne Doyle wrote about her trip originally written for Forbes Woman and reprinted from Forbes.com on 06/04/13:
Behind Black Robes, Hijabs And Niqabs, Saudi Women Are Dreaming Big
If you think “Saudi feminist” is an oxymoron, come with me behind the walls of the female side of the campus of Prince Mohammad University (PMU), a new, private, co-ed center of higher education in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, just across the Arab (Don’t say Persian!) Gulf from Iran.
Yes, a 20 foot wall separates male and female students in a country where unrelated women and men aren’t allowed to mingle, not even for a cup of coffee at the local Starbucks. But once inside PMU’s female, inner sanctum — where all classes are taught in English, you will meet a new generation of ambitious, highly-educated Saudi women who remind me of young, American feminists in the 60’s and 70’s.
Behind those mysterious, black robes that sweep the ground, head-shrouding hijabs hiding every wisp of hair and face-covering nqabs that reveal only their dark, often-heavily made-up eyes, are confident, ambitious and often well-traveled young females positioning themselves for lives and, yes, careers that their mothers and grandmothers barely dreamt of.
How do I know? I’ve just returned from an incredible 10 days in Saudia Arabia and Bahrain.
One of the last places I ever imagined being invited to speak about powering up women is Saudi Arabia – a deeply conservative Islamic country where religious police from “The Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice” still patrol the streets. But invited I was.
It was a rare privilege to engage – as an American career woman, elected official and life-time change agent — not only with female university students, but also with progressive-minded Saudis of both sexes — entrepreneurs, PhD business and academic leaders, medical professionals and journalists. Yes, I donned an abaya everywhere in public. But once inside buildings, I was advised by my hosts to “Take off the abaya and present yourself as an American woman leader.”
My Saudi Cancer Foundation Hosts, Journalists and U.S. Consulate Diplomats at Roundtable on Changing Trends in News Media. Anne Doyle standing next to: Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Turki, Foundation Founder & Chair, U.S. Consult General Joey Hood.
Everywhere I went, I was greeted with great warmth, respect and a hunger for cross-culture discussion and stories, particularly related to changing roles of women, that I have witnessed and helped to lead in my own country. Each interaction reinforced a powerful impression that this very young (only 80 years-old), oil-rich nation, is emerging from the restrictions of its ancient, once-nomadic culture and is standing on the verge of seismic change.
If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider the long-term implications of these facts:
- Two-thirds of the Saudi population is under 30
- The government has built 30 new universities in the last decade.
- In one generation the kingdom has gone from one of the highest illiteracy rates (60%) in the world to one of the highest literacy (96%) rates.
- Since 2005, an average of 100,000 Saudis a year, including women, have been studying abroad, primarily at U.S. universities. Tuition and expenses paid by King Abdullah’s Scholarship Program.
- Saudis are some of the largest users of the Internet. Arabic is the fastest growing language on Twitter. Saudis watch more than 90 million videos daily on YouTube –the largest national viewership in the world.
The Rise of Saudi Women
But it is the steady rise of Saudi women and the changing gender dynamics it will inevitably trigger that has me holding my breath in anticipation.
King Abdullah is considered “pro women,” but is close to 90.
Beginning in 2015 women will be allowed to vote and run for office in municipal elections, thanks to a decree from King Abdullah. In January, the monarch also named thirty women to the Shura Council – another phenomenal and historic step.
No, Saudi Arabia still won’t issue driver’s licenses to women. But with the support of a visonary King, women’s access to education, economic opportunity and travel outside the kingdom is steadily accelerating.
All the evidence you need of what that means for the future can be found in the faces, academic credentials and ambitions of the female students and young professionals I met. Women such as:
- PMU Student Council leaders who told me about their election campaigns and gave me a tour of their campus, including the swimming pool, weight room and basketball court they share equally –on separate days — with male students.
- Nouf, who wants to be Saudi’s first female astronaut.
- Retal, who plans to be part of the first generation of female lawyers to practice law in their courts.
- Hawra who writes a blog in English to share the voice of a young Saudi female with anyone who is listening.
- Microsoft leaders Laila Bukhari, a Technical Account Manager for Saudi Oil & Gas enterprises, and Budoor Ashadawi, who recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for the Saudi Cancer Foundation.
There was no need for me to urge the Saudi women I met to “lean in” or “power up.” Their next big hurdle is professional opportunity. The unemployment rate for Saudi women, including the growing numbers with college and graduate degrees is 34% — five times higher than the rate for men.
Give Them Hope
“What could I say? What insightful gift could I share?” I wondered, as I prepared to speak to several hundred young women coming of age in the 21st Century at a time of change — but in one of the most gender restrictive cultures in the world? I put that question to Dr. Hanadi Adelsalam, Director of PMU’s Female Campus, and Rania Sinno (both in the fountain picture above), two brilliant, academic leaders who are passionate about developing “their girls” into thinkers, problem solvers and engaged global citizens.
“Give them hope,” they told me. “Tell them your story. Tell them the stories and struggles of American women who overcame discrimination and opened doors of opportunity in your country.” So I did. And the Saudis I was privileged to meet were astonished to discover how similar the journey American women have been travelling for over 100 years is to the one they are just beginning.
Let’s root for them to have the courage to lead the way. Watch how their “Shero’s” journey unfolds. And celebrate each step forward they take for womankind. Because when our global sisters rise, we all rise.