The Princess Making Big Strides for Women In Saudi Arabia

Photo: Courtesy of Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud.
Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, businesswoman and public health advocate, is championing women's right to vote in Saudi Arabia.
Update: On Saturday, Saudi women will go to the polls to vote for the first time in the country's municipal elections. It is also the first time Saudi women can run for office in the kingdom's history. Shortly after Saudi women first registered to vote, Refinery29 sat down with Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family and public health advocate. She told us what these elections mean for her, and how she believes that "step one is getting women into government."

Princess Reema is also the leader of the 10KSA, a movement to raise awareness about breast cancer and other women's health issues in Saudi Arabia. On Saturday, the group is holding public health workshops and attempting to create the "World’s Largest Human Awareness Ribbon" with 10,000 Saudi women.

This story was originally published on September 8, 2015 at 9:00 a.m.

For the first time in history, women in Saudi Arabia are able vote, register as candidates, and run for office in municipal elections, which will be held on December 12. This is a major development for a country that has been regarded as one of the most restrictive in the world for women and criticized for its harsh treatment of political dissidents.

According to Human Rights Watch, the strict male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia prevents women from "obtaining a passport, marrying, traveling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother, or son." Allowing women to make their voices heard as voters and as candidates in the monarchy's only elected body is an unprecedented step forward.

To learn more about this progress for women's rights, Refinery29 sat down with Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, entrepreneur, and women's health advocate. She spoke with us from Jeddah.

You've said you don't think it's fair when people focus on the restrictions on Saudi women. What do you want the world to know about women in Saudi Arabia?
"One of the reasons I would say it’s not a fair representation is because I’m literally sitting right now in a coffee shop with my cousin. We look across the table, and there are about 40 other people in here, and half of them are couples, male and female. There are gatherings of ladies. Everybody is comfortable, casual, and happy. Obviously, in any society in any place in the world, there are things that are done and not done, but the idea that women in Saudi Arabia are isolated is not true.

"The only difficulty to life here is the mobility. How do you get yourself from the house to the cafe? I’m sure half of the people here struggle, if they are ladies, in trying to coordinate when their driver is available. Maybe the driver is picking up somebody’s children or dropping off somebody else. It’s that kind of logistical challenge that you face, but not necessarily the actual activity of gathering with each other.

"It’s really a dynamic and thriving community. We do face challenges that happen to be different challenges than other women face in their specific area."
Photo: STR/Gety Images.
Saudi women hold applications as they head to register to vote in the port city of Jeddah on August 30.
Do you feel the ban on women driving is too restrictive?
"I’m not specifically targeting the issue of women driving, because that really comes down to a government decision that involves a lot of logistics and a lot of planning that obviously I’m not privy to or able to change. What I can do is help women to be more financially independent and financially secure. Once a woman takes that step to financial security and financial independence, it becomes a catalyst for a lot of national change.

"It begins to affect the economy in a very positive way, and it begins to affect people’s mindsets. When [a women] is secure, she naturally feels more confident about life. She’s able to be engaged because of that security. That’s where I’m trying to target change. In that, specifically, I’m not alone. It’s actually a national mandate with our Ministry of Labor to get women more equally into the workplace.

"Where I found a hole in the market is that while women are being trained and given vocational skills, what they’re not being given is strategic planning skills, life planning skills, time management skills, and financial planning [skills]. I want to be able to come in and help them create some efficiency platforms and plans for themselves. We integrate our program with other programs so we can have a holistic view for ladies of what it really means to go into the workplace, the difference between a job and a career, and how to plan for myself today and where I’d like to be in five to 10 years."

I’ve been trying to lobby my friends: 'Do you need help to get to the registration points? I will take you there myself!'

Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud
What has changed recently for women in Saudi Arabia?
"The most exciting event this week is that we started the registration for women who will nominate themselves to enter the municipality, and we are launching the registration for women who would like to vote in December for the women who have nominated themselves. This is a huge step.

"There are only two opportunities for voting in this country — one of them is in the Chamber of Commerce and the other is in the municipalities. [Women] voting within the Chamber of Commerce and women entering those positions actually started about four or five years ago. [Municipal elections] are the second largest opportunity for them to engage in our government. I think it’s a massively huge step, and I’m really excited. I went and registered to vote."

Can you describe how you felt when you were registering to vote?
"It’s really exciting because it’s the next step in our social development as a nation, and it’s one that our government has been trying to organize for many years. About three years ago, the announcement to allow women to enter to vote was passed. In the past three years, what our government has done is set up educational programs so that the women who do want to nominate themselves are on an even level with the men by being educated and trained to enter into that sector of the government.

"Besides that, last year there was a national call for women to enter the field of diplomacy. There’s been national calls for women equalizing and entering into the workplace and specific quotas set for women in the workplace. There is a lot of progress for women, and it’s progress that has to be measured with patience. This is news to all of us, so obviously it’s going to have its learning curve, but it’s so wonderful, and I’m so excited to be in this country at this time.

"It’s huge. I got my mother and my sisters to register. I’ve been trying to lobby my friends: 'Do you need help to get to the registration points? I will take you there myself!'"
Photo: Courtesy of Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud.
Princess Reema at her home in Los Angeles, CA.
What is the 10KSA initiative and why is it important to you?
"10KSA represents 10,000 women in Saudi Arabia. The objective of our event is to focus our women on the global aspects of their health, not on the singular element of just breast cancer. The reason I say this is because when we did our campaign in 2010, we focused singularly on breast cancer, and we realized that there’s a bigger dialogue for these ladies. If we have 10,000 women leave their homes to come to one location on that day to unify and represent a moment of solidarity for women who are going through this disease, or through it with their families, it would be a shame for them to leave our venue without having learned something.

"We’re working with the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Health to bring in four national screening programs — breast cancer, obesity, smoking, and diabetes. Then, we are also working with the organizations that deal with emotional, physical, mental, and environmental health. If somebody has diabetes and happens to have cancer, there’s something to be learned and knowledge that can be exchanged between both. People who are smokers, there’s knowledge to be exchanged between why is it beneficial for your lifestyle to stop smoking because of all the negative effects it can have on your body. I also think there’s knowledge to be gained from people who are going through depression that also have cancer, so it's about how we manage to get all of these different organizations to share the different data they have so that a woman can walk into the subject matter of her health and view it holistically rather than singularly.

"It’s holistic health that will help us be a healthier nation. Lifestyle is extremely important. We are very much a nocturnal society. We live very much a sedentary lifestyle here. We don’t move that much, and I need the ladies to realize that this important, that emotional health is important, that mental health is important. We are trying to break some of these taboos and be more collective in our health."

The breast is a very personal and private subject that we as a nation are not comfortable discussing...So you can imagine the extent of dialogue that is not happening here.

Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud
How do taboos about women’s health affected their ability to access healthcare?
"Healthcare and education in Saudi Arabia are free. The issue is not that they do not have access to the healthcare; it’s whether they know what is available to them. A lot of people do not know the facilities or the medical treatments or where to go for the treatments.

"Step one for us is making this knowledge easily accessible and disseminating it. We’d like to use these 10,000 women as our ambassadors for disseminating this information. Second of all, the taboo here really is not when you look at the three major cities. Our three major cities are extremely cosmopolitan and the people of those cities are highly educated. When you go one hour outside of the cities, however, we begin to face our obstacles. Those obstacles are very much related to the value of the woman in the relationship that she has.

"External to the major cities, the value of the woman is as a caregiver, as a mother, and as the individual that supports the household. She is concerned that if she is not of optimum health, she is going to be replaced by a younger or healthier woman. A lot of these women will not talk about their health, so they don’t lose their position in the household.

"We also have households that are ignorant to the fact that cancer is not contagious. They will actually isolate the woman from her community, so that she will not infect other people. Now, this mentality isn’t exclusive to breast cancer; it unfortunately applies to children with Down’s Syndrome and many other diseases. Our challenge when we go out to the villages is to talk to the ladies about their general health and have a buy-in from a village point of view. Then when we come back on our second and third visit we begin to really discuss the breast cancer.

A lot of these women will not talk about their disease so that they don’t lose their position in the household.

Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud
"The breast is a very personal and private subject that we, as a nation, are not comfortable discussing. We are not comfortable discussing any private parts or any disease related to those private parts. You can imagine the extent of dialogue that is not happening here about breast health. If a woman feels a lump in her breast, she doesn’t even know who to go to to talk about it, and the person she’s talking to doesn’t know where to refer her. Our organization’s mandate is to make sure information is easily disseminated, and that locations and checkpoints for medical care are known and easily accessible. Where we can, we also provide transportation.

"We also provide access for women who think they might have found a lump to talk to women that have gone through the disease. We actually go into hospitals and talk to ladies in the waiting room. We talk to ladies while they’re connected to the chemo. If we’re talking to the women from the village, it’s a very different mentality from the women in the city. She’s sitting there with the needle in her arm not actually knowing what’s going on. The majority of the nurses here are expat nurses, so they don’t speak Arabic as a first language. You can imagine the challenge of this poor woman who’s been driven out for her weekly treatment, not really knowing what’s going on. When she finds a lady who looks like her and sounds like her and has been through the experience, it is extremely comforting for her. We really try to bridge those obstacles as much as we can through our organization."

If you move too fast, you alienate one. If you move too slow, you alienate the other. I prefer steady as she goes.

Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud
Are there disparities between wealthy and poor women in Saudi Arabia?
"I wouldn’t say that’s really the conflict here. The quality of life in the villages is very different from the quality of life in the major cities. Everything is at the same scale as the lifestyle there. The cost of electricity, the cost of water is all government-subsidized, so it’s sort of very low-rate.

"The challenge here isn’t the cost of living or the lifestyle; the challenge here is really just equalizing the job opportunities for men and women. That also has been a huge push with the government. When you look at the disparity between high-net-worth individuals, I wouldn’t put the scale as skewed or extreme as perhaps in the United States or in India. It’s very moderate. We have a very large middle class here, but it would be a misnomer to say that there is not poverty in Saudi Arabia. It’s just not on a grand scale, but it also depends what your definition of poor is."

What about awareness about other women’s health issues?
"Our national diet is full of very heavy, fatty, rich, and meaty dishes. It’s super-delicious, but you can’t eat that every day and also not move. Trying to get women to change their lifestyles and be more physically mobile is really one of our mandates. It's connecting the knowledge that it’s not just what you eat, it’s how you think, it’s how you breathe, and it’s how you move. We are connecting that back into our day-to-day life and letting people realize that...if you are at a healthy weight and you are mobile, osteoporosis is reduced.

"We have a severe lack of Vitamin D in our systems in the Middle East, and that’s because we don’t sit outside, and we don’t engage in the sun. You have to accept that 50% of the year, it’s too hot to sit outside. We need to start educating our women on how to use supplements. If you’re not going to be outside, there are ways that you can supplement it. We’re really trying to engage on the topic of total health. It becomes a domino effect, if one is not aware."
Photo: Hassan Ammar/AP Photo.
Women in Saudi Arabia can register to vote and run in the country's municipal elections, which will be held December 12.
There has been discussion about bringing physical education to girls in schools. What is the status of that?
"The Ministry of Education has now mandated physical education for girls in public schools, which is exciting. The private schools already have it. If you want to change mindsets, you have to start when they’re young. What’s also been really fascinating is this group of women-owned and women-run fitness centers all over the country. [The women-only gym] Curves has made it into Saudi Arabia, and its counterparts and local equivalents have also launched here. Women are going to the gym and getting fit; they are definitely engaging in their health. From spinning to Zumba, whatever you see as a trend anywhere in the world is available here."

It seems that you've been on the forefront of bring progressive ideas to Saudi Arabia.
"Not really. Rather than being at the forefront of any of this, I’ve been able to ride the wave and navigate it. With all of the things I’m doing here, I’m the beneficiary of government mandates or people who have opened the door before me.

"When it comes to women’s employment, the lady that opened those doors is Reem Asaad. She started the campaign for women to work in lingerie shops, which was a catalyst for the Ministry of Labor to look at women in retail. I just came in as a beneficiary of that and was able to apply and implement the laws in our Harvey Nichols store.

"I am getting more attention because I’m comfortable talking about the things that I’m doing, not because I am the first to do them. I am one of many — otherwise, it would be a really lonely playing field."

We have a very large middle class here, but it would be a misnomer to say that there is not poverty in Saudi.

Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud
Would you consider yourself a feminist?
"I wouldn’t consider myself a feminist because I don’t like to label myself for others. Everyone has their own definition of what those words mean, and some people view them positively and some people view them negatively. So, I’d rather not associate myself with any of those words and just let the work that I do stand for itself.

"I just think I’m a really active woman that has the ability to work with many other active men and women to create productive environments in my community. The work I do is always work with others, for others, and I think that applying any kind of external word that carries too much weight and baggage historically doesn’t really apply to what I’d like to do."

Are you sometimes frustrated with the speed of progress in Saudi Arabia?
"I did not understand the speed at which things change here until I moved and started working here. When you begin to get frustrated, you realize there actually is a reason why...You have to decide which demographic you actually want to effect change with.

"If you move too fast, you alienate one. If you move too slow, you alienate the other. I prefer steady as she goes. I will take one step at a time, because even one step is a big step. And, I’m okay with it, because I don’t like to work under pressure, and I don’t like to work under peer pressure either. It's not a healthy way to change if you’re constantly trying to be someone else rather than move forward at a pace that’s healthy for you."
Photo: Courtesy of Harvey Nichols Riyadh.
Women work at the makeup counter in the Harvey Nichols department store in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
You have a daughter you’re raising on your own. What values do you want to make sure you pass on to her?
"I hope my son and daughter can view the world with empathy and compassion. If you have empathy and compassion, you’ll be able to accept challenges. You’ll also be able to accept that it’s not just your challenge that’s out there in the world; everybody’s got them. I want them to be able to pick their path with kindness, regardless of whether they’re male or female."

What are women's day-to-day lives like?
"The only difference between my life in Washington, DC, and the way I worked and socialized in Saudi is the point of mobility. What’s available here is not equal to, but is comparable to what’s there. The functions of my day are similar, too — getting up to take the kids to school, going to work, coming home, putting them to bed, having my friends over to watch some TV, going out on the weekends by myself or with my kids. The only differences are what I’m wearing, because I wear my abaya when I go out in Saudi, and that I’m not driving myself.

"Now, my personal situation is very different than other people's situations, because every family has its own social norms and guidelines. A lot of people socialize from house to house, but we have a thriving restaurant business all across this country. If you want to make money in Saudi, open a restaurant or a children’s entertainment center. Those are the three ways that you will basically mint it in Saudi.

"I don’t find the challenge in occupying myself; I find the challenge in managing my time to make sure I honor my time with my children, finish my work, and have time for friends. I think those would be things any woman, anywhere would want if she wants to have a work-life balance."
Photo: Courtesy of Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud.
Princess Reema and Caroline Issa, Tank Magazine CEO, in the Florence factory that produces her Baraboux handbags.
Many Western women are fascinated by how much Saudi women love fashion when they have to wear the abaya outside of the home. Why is that?
"I can actually simplify this for you. If you go back to the Victorian era, when a woman left her home, she put on her cape, her bonnet, and her gloves. She got into her carriage to go across town. That is the exact function of the abaya. It is like a cape or a cloak that you would put on as an outer garment, and once you arrive to your destination, you remove it.

"If you are in a restaurant, because that qualifies as a public space, you don’t remove your abaya. But, if you’re in somebody’s home, you remove it. If you walk into somebody’s home, and it’s a group of 10 girls, half of them will be dressed in Western fashion and the other half will be dressed in Middle Eastern fashion. By Middle Eastern fashion, I don’t mean they’re all wrapped up in drapes. I mean they’re wearing designers that are from this region that actually have some pretty edgy designs. The others will be in Alexander Wang, Phillip Lim, Derek Lam, or Zara — everybody you could possibly imagine. If it exists in the world, it exists in Saudi, from a fashion perspective."

What is your advice for women who want to follow in your footsteps?
"For women in Saudi Arabia, our challenges are no greater or smaller than anyone else's, they’re just different in nature. We’re definitely on our path to a new era, but how that era is defined is the moment that we’re in. How are we going to evolve in our own community?

"Step one is getting women into government, which is happening in the next three months. December is when our election happens. It will be the first time our voices are heard, and I think that that’s wonderful. I think that if people from the outside could have a little bit of faith and patience, they would see that we’re developing our system as we go. It’s not strict, it’s not canonized, and it’s not structured yet, but it’s getting there. We’re sticking our toes in the water, and it’s a fascinating moment to be in.

"I don’t like to say follow in my footsteps because I think each individual has a singular journey, but I would say: have the confidence to jump into a challenge that you are not sure you’re qualified for because it’s a learning experience. I had no business being in the business I was in, but it opened my eyes to opportunities that not only will help other women progress in their lives, but also have shaped my soul and my life. I now know what I want to do, and the only reason I know that is because I jumped in somewhere I didn’t think I knew what I was doing.

"Face the challenge, no matter how hard it is, because something wonderful can come out of it, if you’re open enough to the opportunity that’s presented. "

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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