HYDE PARK — A University of Chicago grad has emerged as an example of Saudi Arabia's efforts to broaden the role of women in the country, with Fatimah Baeshen being named the Arab state's first spokeswoman in the United States.
Baeshen's appointment as the official spokeswoman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington came late last month — on the same day the nation announced it would allow women to drive.
Raised in Oxford, Miss. (she calls herself a "Saudi redneck" and speaks English with an accent shaped by her Southern roots), Baeshen studied Islamic finance at the U. of C. She received a master's degree in Middle Eastern Studies in 2009, a university spokeswoman said.
As Saudi Arabia "works on domestic reforms, a concerted effort is underway to tell its story more proactively in the West," according to an Associated Press profile of Baeshen published this week. Saudi Arabia has "spent millions on an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign targeting Capitol Hill and the American media."
Baeshen's assignment is significant, as the Washington embassy is "considered by many Saudi officials to be their most important overseas post," according to the AP.
Baeshen said her gender played no role in her hiring, but her appointment was described as "a path-breaking day for women" by the Saudi newspaper Al-Bilad.
Her first tweet in her new post hailed the decision to allow women to drive in her home country, according to the Gulf News. “Pivotal moment in Saudi history: women granted the right to drive,” she tweeted.
Later, she appeared on CNN, forcefully addressing the host's observation that Saudi women cannot marry, divorce, have certain elective surgeries or travel without permission from a male guardian.
"As a Saudi woman, I have to tell you there's a guardianship system as an institutional policy that is very different than what happens organically on the ground," she said.
In a video posted on YouTube introducing herself, she said she spent most of her 36 years "abroad," meaning outside of Saudi Arabia.
Before her appointment, Baeshen held positions with Aon, the Islamic Development Bank, the World Bank, the Saudi Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Economy and Planning and was a director at the Washington-based think tank Arabia Foundation.
"Fatimah reflects the dynamic, young leadership that is emerging in Saudi Arabia," Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, the Saudi Arabia ambassador to the United States, said in announcing her new role.
Baesha has written op-eds for a number of publications, including Time magazine.
Writing in the Arab News when she was director at the Arabia Foundation, Baeshen boosted opportunities for female athletes in Saudi Arabia, saying they would help "normalize a role for women in the public sphere" as well as improve women's health
The Saudi government, she wrote, "recognizes that women’s progress has become the metric by which the rest of the world measures Saudi Arabia’s advancement as a nation."