Saudi women are divided about whether the country’s rulers should ease restrictive gender policies, but as Eman Al Nafjan writes in Foreign Policy, there are «hundreds, if not thousands, of Saudi women who are fighting for their rights,» whether it be the freedom to become a lawyer, manage a business, or move about without a guardian’s permission. For her persistent outspokenness in the face of repression, FP named Nafjan, a Riyadh-based postgraduate student who writes the influential Saudiwoman’s Weblog, to its 2011 list of Global Thinkers. But she’s not the only woman making waves in Saudi. Here are ten other trailblazing women making their mark in the Kingdom right now.
Above, women walk in a Riyadh City mall a day after Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah granted women the right to vote and to run in municipal elections in September 2011.
Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images
MANAL AL-SHARIF: WOMEN’S RIGHTS ACTIVIST
Sharif, a computer consultant, galvanized a campaign to overturn Saudi Arabia’s prohibition on women driving by uploading a video of herself steering a car to YouTube — an offense for which she was later imprisoned. She appears alongside Eman Al Nafjan on this year’s list of top Global Thinkers.
LUBNA OLAYAN: BUSINESSWOMAN
Forbes consistently lists Olayan, the CEO of a conglomerate founded by her father, as one of the most powerful women in the world. During the 2004 Jeddah Economic Forum, she became the first woman to address a mixed-gender conference in Saudi Arabia. «My vision is of a country with a prosperous and diversified economy in which any Saudi citizen, irrespective of gender who is serious about finding employment, can find a job in the field for which he or she is best qualified,» she declared.
Flickr user World Economic Forum
WAJEHA AL-HUWAIDER: WOMEN’S RIGHTS ACTIVIST
Huwaider, arguably the highest-profile women’s rights advocate in Saudi Arabia, posted a video of herself driving on International Women’s Day in 2008 and filmed Manal al-Sharif doing the same in 2011. «Saudi women are weak, no matter how high their status,» she wrote in 2006. «The oppression of women and the effacement of their selfhood is a flaw affecting most homes in Saudi Arabia.»
Mido Ahmed/AFP/Getty Images
LOLWAH AL-FAISAL: PRINCESS
During a 2007 appearance at the World Economic Forum, al-Faisal (right), the most prominent princess in Saudi Arabia’s royal family, made headlines by recommending that women be allowed to drive. She helped found Effat University, the country’s first private women’s college.
Awad Awad/AFP/Getty Images
DANIA NASSIEF AND DANYA ALHAMRANI: FILMMAKERS
Nassief and Alhamrani run Eggdancer Productions, the country’s first female-owned production company. In 2008, Alhamrani persuaded the Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain to travel to Saudi Arabia and sample the Kingdom’s cuisine. The segment helped show that «Saudi women can be strong in charge,» Alhamrani wrote. Scenes like the one above from their culinary adventure — which included discussions on gender segretation — can be found here, here, and here.
YouTube user TravelChannelTV
SUSAN BAAGHIL: PHOTOGRAPHER
Baaghil is Saudi Arabia’s first professional female photographer. «The West think Saudi women are left at home, with the camel,» she told the Guardian in 2008. «They think we are oppressed. Why should I have to be like a Western woman to be happy? Why should I have to wear a bikini?»
Flickr user Susan Baaghil
BASMA AL-OMAIR: BUSINESSWOMAN
Omair, shown above meeting with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in May 2010, directs a center at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce dedicated to empowering Saudi businesswomen. «Women should work and get involved in the economy,» she says.
Amer Hilabi/AFP/Getty Images
HANAN AL-MADANI: FASHION DESIGNER
Madani, shown at right during a fashion show in Beirut in March 2010, designs custom-made abayas for women that can fetch as much as $2,000. She’s complained that she has to hold fashion shows abroad in order to garner the media coverage she needs for marketing purposes.
Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images
MUNA ABU SULAYMAN: TELEVISION PERSONALITY
The editor of Asharq al-Awsat has called Abu Sulayman Saudi Arabia’s «Oprah.» The talk-show host, who now directs the philanthropic arm of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s Kingdom Holding Company, told the Saudi Gazette that she wants «girls to see that there is almost no limitation to where they can go; the most important thing they can do is to work to be content, happy, married and to have children.» Above, Abu Sulayman discusses gender and globalization at Yale University in December 2009.
YouTube user Yale University
SELWA AL-HAZZAA: OPHTHALMOLOGIST
Hazzaa, an internationally acclaimed doctor and the head of the ophthalmology department at King Faisal Specialist Hospital, is proud of the progress women have made in Saudi Arabia. «Look at how the Kingdom has changed in just 40 years,» she told the Arab News. «My mother was illiterate; she never went to school. And here I am, the very next generation, a full-fledged professor.»