RIYADH (AFP) — Norah al-Fayez, the first woman ever named to a ministerial post in Saudi Arabia, has put a crack in the thick glass ceiling that the country's strict version of Islam sets against her gender.
The veteran administrator was named to the new post of deputy education minister for women's education as part of a sweeping shakeup of the government announced Saturday by the country's reform-minded absolute monarch King Abdullah.
"This is a successful step. We've always suffered from having a man occupy the position" overseeing women's education, the English-language Arab News newspaper quoted her as saying.
"A woman knows what problems and challenges her peers face. It's a change for the better," she said.
Leading Saudi women's rights activist and academic Hatoon al-Fassi said that she was very happy about Fayez's appointment although this step was not enough.
"One woman is not enough, what will one woman do alone in a crowd of men," Fassi told AFP.
"Her decisions will not be effective or tangible, but it is a step in the right direction."
Saudi Arabia's dominant Wahhabi school of Islam imposes a strict separation of unrelated members of the opposite sexes, forces women to be shrouded in black from head to toe, bans them from driving, and keeps them dependent on male guardians when travelling outside the home.
Together such policies have hampered the promotion of women to top jobs in the kingdom where offices and businesses such as banks are required to have completely separate facilities for female workers.
Saudi women heavily campaigned in 2005 to be allowed to vote in the country's first-ever municipal elections, but their hopes were thwarted.
So Fayez's appointment to the job, on the doorstep of the king's powerful Council of Ministers, is widely seen as a major breakthrough.
The move shows the 84-year-old king's intention to move toward naming more women to high leadership positions in the future, Fayez said, according to local media reports.
Fayez described her appointment as "a source of pride for all women."
The 52-year-old graduated in sociology from King Saud University in 1978 and earned a master's degree in education from Utah State University in the United States in 1982.
She then worked in the education ministry, specialising in women's education, and administered private schools before moving to the country's Institute of Public Administration in 1993.
Fayez is married with five children, three boys and two girls.
Other women called her appointment a landmark step forward in the kingdom.
"We believe that this is an occasion to push a number of recommendations to begin empowering women," legal expert Nawal al-Mazem told Al-Riyadh newspaper.
"This decision shows the direction toward allowing Saudi women to work in high positions in the government," another legal consultant, Asmaa al-Ghanim, told Al-Riyadh newspaper.
"More Saudi women taking ministerial jobs in the future cannot be ruled out," she said.
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