This photo has appeared all over the western press in the last few days both in the USA and UK, it was picked up from social media and then used to castigate attitudes to women in Saudi Arabia. On the face of it the photo tells a story that is shocking, but if you delve a little deeper there are some reasons that explain absurdity of it.
The conference apparently took place at Qassim University last year, the University has both male and female students. Most of the mixed universities in The Kingdom teach women and men in separate rooms, relaying classes by video link depending on whether the professor is male or female. Almost certainly, the reason why there are no women in the photo is that the women were participating simultaneously but in a separate room. It is likely that much of the conference was being relayed to men rather than vice-versa and that if you put a more positive spin on the photo, it is rather wonderful that so many arab men should turn up for a Women’s Conference and are getting in touch with their feminine side.
If the conference had been an international business type event, many of the men would have been wearing suits / jacket and tie’s. The fact that there is only one man in the room who is not wearing a Thobe and Guttra means that the event is conservative. The women who were involved in the conference almost certainly did not want men present. As in the words of a Saudi friend of mine. All Saudi men are @#$%, when it comes to behavior in front of Saudi women who are not members of their own family.
In the long run, for men and women to come together at an event like this will come down to changing cultural standards. In a society where Pater familias is the keystone of Islamic law and order, that change will happen slowly. Today that order is being challenged, with women demanding self-determination within the context of an Islamic society. It is important to remember that women’s emancipation has been a slow business. Women in Switzerland only got the federal vote in 1971, and last canton gave the vote to women in 1990 after being forced by Switzerland’s supreme court.
But please remember, that even if the photo shows no women, they were almost certainly the movers and shakers behind the conference taking place.