It's been less than four months since women in Saudi Arabia were told they would finally be allowed to drive. Now they also want the chance to fly.
Eqbal Darandari, a female member of the Saudi Shura Council, the monarchy's main advisory body, told Arab News that allowing women into aviation would be an important step in realizing the kingdom's goal to “increase women's participation in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent." That's a key talking point for those who tout the ambitious 2030 Vision Saudi Arabia has laid out to modernize and diversify its economy
“Saudi women are yet another great asset," the document states. “With over 50 percent of our university graduates being female, we will continue to develop their talents, invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy."
But in the 85-page document, that is the only specific mention of women — and it does not explain how exactly the government proposes to boost female participation in the workforce.
“I don’t know whether it’s distrust or fear, or perhaps an exaggerated interpretation of religion, but withholding such opportunities from women under the guise of overprotectiveness is unheard of anywhere else in the world," Darandari said. “As long as women are prepared and committed to the requirements and demands of such a job, why hesitate?”
Darandari, a professor of statistics with a PhD from Florida State University, is not new to the push for women's equality in Saudi Arabia. As one of 29 female members of the Shura Council, she has advocated for giving women the right to travel without a male guardian and is a regular speaker at women's leadership conferences.
In other parts of the Middle East, including among Saudi Arabia's fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, women have been driving for years. Taxis driven by women for a female-only clientele are now commonplace, as are segregated metro cars and buses.
But Saudi Arabia has been slow to adapt, and Darandari says it needs to speed up to meet its own stated goals.
“Saudi women have already proven their worth in the aviation spectrum, and we’ve seen Saudi women piloting aircraft outside the Kingdom; now it’s time for the [Saudi aviation authority] to take the initiative," she said. “Saudi women deserve to find work in their own country."