Straddler-based Gender Reform in Saudi Arabia: The Case of Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry
This essay inquires into the process of gender role negotiation in Saudi Arabia by examining the dynamics of organizations that straddle ambiguous state-society boundaries and how they have been used to pioneer successful gender reform initiatives in the conservative oil kingdom. The specific case of inquiry is the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI), the leading organization in which women were elected to governance positions for the first time in the history of Saudi Arabia. The JCCI also became the prototype for a series of successful initiatives that established business women’s councils in the main Chambers of Commerce and Industry (CCIs) across the country. In the context of the JCCI narrative, the essay makes a number of claims: 1) the dynamics of associational life in Saudi Arabia constitute crucial negotiation sites of the current governance reform process taking shape in the country; 2) that a “straddler” focus of analysis provides a useful model for inquiry into gender articulation in Saudi Arabia; and 3) that “straddler” organizations were indispensable for the success of pioneering feminist reformers in the country and the discursive shifts they achieved. State laws and regulations that set the rules for the corporatist arrangement of Saudi CCIs and their internal governance were examined. The web presence of national and regional CCIs were also analyzed in terms of the information that they provided to the public, the primacy of gender reform issues in their presentation, and the ability of users to connect with businesswomen councils and their leaders.