Thursday, Apr. 30, 2009

Norah al-Faiz

In Saudi Arabia small changes carry deep meaning, so the appointment earlier this year of Norah al-Faiz as Deputy Minister for Women's Education was nothing short of an earthquake. Educated at King Saud University and Utah State, al-Faiz is the first woman minister in Saudi history. The appointment of al-Faiz, in her early 50s, was the most significant sign yet of the quiet revolution under way since King Abdullah ascended the throne in 2005. The King also replaced his Minister of Justice, head of the religious police and Minister of Education with more moderate, reform-minded leaders.

Saudi reformers welcomed the changes, especially the appointment of al-Faiz, but the real test will be whether she is allowed the authority to get things done. The education of girls has long been a battleground within the kingdom. Al-Faiz faces practical difficulties too. She can't, for example, work face to face with male counterparts without violating the kingdom's strict religious code — so she has said she will conduct meetings through closed-circuit television. Her presence at the ministry has had an immediate impact on Saudi women, who had been unable to enter the building. No longer. "Now I am the deputy minister, and my door is open and accessible," alFaiz said after her appointment.

The path for al-Faiz will not be easy. But something important is under way in Saudi Arabia, and al-Faiz, and her King, are two people to watch.

Cheney held senior positions in the State Department during the Administration of George W. Bush