(Updates throughout with quotes, details)
By Belinda Goldsmith
RIYADH, March 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Saudi women from adventurers to inventors hope a unique conference in Riyadh on Saturday will highlight their changing roles and inspire younger women to push for new opportunities in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
The event comes at a time when reforms are slowly affecting women’s lives in one of the world’s most gender-segregated countries - where women live under the supervision of a male guardian and cannot drive.
Women can now sit on the government advisory Shura Council, vote in municipal elections and work in some retail and hospitality jobs with the government’s Vision 2030 trying to diversify the oil-reliant economy by boosting female employment.
At a one-day conference run by Alwaleed Philanthropies, a charitable group working to help women, Saudi women from various walks of life took to the stage alongside international speakers such as British women’s rights campaigner Cherie Blair.
Raha Moharrak, 31, who made history in 2013 as the first Saudi woman to climb Mount Everest, said girls in Saudi Arabia must be taught that they are not less than boys.
“My journey started as a mini-rebellion ... I wanted to shock my parents,” said Moharrak, who was determined to do something different after studying abroad and won her reluctant father over by explaining why climbing was important to her.
“I reached a certain age in my life when everyone expected me to fit into a certain box. I wasn’t ready to stop my ambition,” she told the conference, where male attendees sat behind a curtain divider.
Other speakers included Hadeel Ayoub, who invented a smart glove that converts sign language to text, and Lama Al Sulaiman, who quit after being voted onto a municipal council as her male peers insisted she sat in a different room.
“Women in leadership positions today is a must, and there should be women everywhere,” she told the conference of about 200 women.
“SAUDI WOMEN CAN”
Princess Lamia bint Majed Al Saud, secretary general of Alwaleed Philanthropies, said the conference, with the slogan “Saudi Women Can”, was part of a campaign to draw attention to their achievements and inspire the next generation.
“I want to give the younger generation role models to show them that, no matter what obstacles, there are opportunities,” Princess Lamia told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which is partnering with the charity to provide training for Saudi journalists on women’s issues.
Blair said she was delighted to be in Riyadh as Saudi women were adding their voices “to the global call for equality for women”.
“The only way is up, and this conference is another visible sign of the mood here for change,” she said.
Speaker Eqbal Darandari, associate professor at King Saud University who was elected to the Shura Council in 2016, said it was important women learned responsibility and leadership.
“We have a lot of opportunities, but you have to break through and push the obstacles and not just complain,” she said.
“We are achieving things but not as fast as we would like ... What is needed is social change, and that is slow.”
Advertising executive Abeer Alessa said the culture was slowly changing.
“But one of the main issues and challenges is to change the mindset,” Alessa said.
Saudi Arabia is ranked 141 of 144 countries in the Global Gender Gap, a World Economic Forum study on how women fare in economic and political participation, health and education.
A state policy of gender segregation between unrelated men and women is strictly enforced with separate areas in public spaces and separate entrances at workplaces.
In public all women must wear a head-to-toe black garment.
Moharrak, a graphic designer, said women need to get the support of their fathers and brothers for real change to happen.
"All the women who have managed to achieve independence have two things in common: a rebellious heart and an understanding father," she says, joking that her success had made it harder for her to get an arranged marriage as is the norm. "But I have learned that if you fail, stand up immediately and carry on. " (Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith, Editing by Ros Russell and Ellen Wulfhorst.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)