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A New Kind of Saudi Woman

Posted: 10/19/11 03:29 PM ET

She is 20. She tweets and Facebooks. She loves good books, hanging out with her friends and spending time with family. She's hooked on CNN.

She is a student, a daughter, a sister and friend.

She is Mariam, the delegate from Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps it's the entrenched stereotypes about her home country that intrigue me to learn more about a young woman who will take on pervasive issues facing girls and women at the G(irls)20 Summit while hailing from a country that still notoriously prohibits women from driving a car or holding political office.

Mariam graciously agreed to sit down with me on the first day of the summit in Paris, which precedes the G20 by two weeks. Over the course of our conversation, I came to know a poised young woman who earlier in the day addressed a distinguished panel on economic innovation with the confidence and eloquence of a woman twice her age.


In truth, Mariam has more similarities than differences to her North American counterparts and she truly embodies the spirit of the summit -- to empower young woman in their communities, countries and around the world.

She tells me empathically that the 21 delegates all share similar dreams, have big aspirations, face the same challenges of balancing school and life commitments and express a similar desire to give back and become agents of change regardless of race or ethnicity.


Although she acknowledges the inequality still facing woman in her home country, she is also a fierce advocate of the progress that has been made. She expresses pride in her generation. One she describes as more tolerant, open-minded and aware of the issues and rights of women. Changes, she says, that are not modelled after the Western world but that respect and reflect the customs, faith and traditions that guide her nation.

She defends a country that she believes provides fair and equal access to education but in a quiet moment also concedes that many young women are still raised to become wives. Even her talented best friend will likely abandon her career aspirations to become a young wife and mother -- still the most coveted role for Saudi women.

The biggest difference between her and many of the other delegates, she tells me, is the concept of guardianship. Guardianship for Saudi women is omnipresent. Whereas a Western girl will adopt the label of 'woman' at age 18 -- the recognized age of adulthood and the time at which guardianship is no longer required -- Saudi girls are under the guardianship of their fathers until that guardianship is transferred to their husbands. Despite her obvious confidence and perceived independence, I am struck by this stark contrast. Her very presence at the summit is a result of her father's written permission to travel.

I inadvertently raise my eyebrows in judgment and embarrassed, I try to smile it away. Mariam, a vision of composure, doesn't flinch. Instead she expresses pride about her parent's contemporary beliefs, vision and unwavering support of their daughter's goals and acknowledges that this support has given her the kind of advantages and opportunities that will be critical to her future success.

Mariam pauses and reflects on those advantages and opportunities and shares her guiding mantra, "If I can do it, others should also." It is this principled fairness, appreciation of the best parts of her country and culture and sturdy determination that will propel her in her dream career as a human rights lawyer.

Mariam wants to be part of the continuing change, to deliver equality and justice globally. Just like the ambitions of the other 20 delegates who over five days will tackle big issues like addressing the historic and present challenges of the gender gap and commoditization of girls and women.

In our closing minutes together, I ask Mariam what she wants to be known for and although the greatest achievement for a Saudi woman is still marriage and motherhood, Mariam says this:

"When I am 60, I want to be known as a woman who did her best, served my community and my country. I want to have faced the challenges head on, reached my goals and given back as a woman."

With girls like Mariam at the helm, we'll all be in good hands.

 

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