'The hardest thing in life is to know who you really are': HRH Princess Lamia Bint Majid Al Saud
From women being allowed to drive on the roads to offering tourist visas, it is the dawn of a new society in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia... one in which women are important stakeholders. HRH Princess Lamia Bint Majid Al Saud has been among them. Secretary general of Alwaleed Philanthropies, she has, over the years, deep dived into causes that have been closest to her heart. From addressing violence against women to lack of nutrition among children, the canvas of her philanthropic work has been vast. Having recently been awarded for Outstanding Achievements in Philanthropy in Dubai, she spoke to WKND about the length and breadth of her work and why it is exciting to be a part of a society that is changing at such a rapid pace.
What sort of a role do you see philanthropy playing in the Middle East?
Here, philanthropy is pretty much a concept. With globalisation and flexibility of information, it's easy now to understand where the need is. So, we in the Middle East have begun to understand when and where to help. In other parts of the world, such as the Far East, there are other problems. Because of our origins and beliefs, we have an innate need to help others; it's in our DNA.
Women's empowerment has been at the core of your philosophy. Who are the women who have inspired you?
I don't believe that men and women are equal. Men have a certain role, as do women. Men don't get pregnant. They don't breastfeed. Both genders have their respective roles - we complete each other. There is a very good example in Saudi Arabia, where women now are exercising their rights. If a woman is 21, she can go out and get a passport. But who allowed this? The men. I have a clear goal in my life - I want to help others. When I went to Laos to spread awareness on measles, I discovered the problem was not with the vaccination but nutrition. Whenever a woman gets pregnant there, for two years, she only eats sticky rice and spicy things. So, the kids' growth is stunted, their brains don't develop. I sat with a teacher of a local school, who told me that she was trying to educate them by telling them that they are harming their kids in the process. Now, someone like that inspires me.
What does feminism mean to you?
I believe God created us differently for a reason. Don't tell me if you're six months pregnant or breastfeeding, you will still have the heart to spend eight or nine hours at work. Women are more than capable of accomplishing anything, but you needn't be a man to be able to do so. Being a woman is a privilege; you are responsible for a child to become a good human being because you are a role model for them. It's you who is feeding the kid everything. You are creating generations. I understand where the activists come from, but if they're advocating for women to be stronger by not looking after their kid, they are not gaining anything.
How are women changing the social landscape of Saudi Arabia?
You have to understand it from the perspective of numbers. Today, more number of women are graduating from our universities than men, and they're really proving themselves in certain positions. That is also reflecting in our economy. We have been strict about women going out and working for a really long time, so today, it feels as though we have been unleashed and want to prove ourselves.
What do you consider philanthropic achievements of Al Waleed?
Once, there was an orphan girl who was adopted by a Saudi family. She wanted to study law so that she could actually file a case against her father. In Saudi Arabia, you have to go to the university to study law and then spend certain number of hours to practise in courts. Now, her mom used to be abused by her father. I met her at an event and later, we trained her (in the foundation, we create awareness on women's rights and train lawyers). Her mother eventually got divorced and today, that girl is one of the most well-respected lawyers in the country. From a project perspective, I'd say it's the captinah initiative. After women were allowed to drive on the roads of Saudi Arabia, in 48 hours, we called Careem and collaborated with them. We donated 200 cars, trained ladies, helped them get licences and now 20 of them are Careem captinahs.
There is a Saudi Arabia one reads about in the Western newspapers and then there is a Saudi Arabia that one experiences now that the country has begun to give tourist visas.
I would say the West is comfortable in painting a certain picture of us - the women are victims, society is not welcoming, we are terrorists. I am happy that we are now giving tourist visas because now you can actually visit the country and see things for yourself. Now, you don't have to wait to be able to talk to me. To be honest, we were responsible for such stereotyping also because we never publicised ourselves. We were busy setting up our house, and you call others to your home only after that's done, right? We are an 89-year-old country, we have our own traditions and beliefs, but that doesn't mean that we are all that the West imagines us to be.
You're also critical of social media influencers.
With all due respect to influencers, I wouldn't want my daughters to look up to someone who is spending a good part of her day looking after her hair and nails instead of, say, an Oprah Winfrey. I would want my kids to follow inventors. Look at the influencers in our part of the world - how many of them are advocating for knowledge, research or innovation?
You have also edited magazines. What were the challenges of being in that profession?
Ever since I was 14, I would travel to London every year with my family; it was their favourite holiday destination. I used to buy books on the royal family from there. After finishing them, I'd show these books to my mother and ask if they were true. Some of it was, but a lot of it was exaggerated. Now, I write in order to be able to express myself. In fact, I write letters to God as well. When I was 16, I decided to study mass communication and specialised in journalism. One of my aims was to have my own magazine. In each and every issue, I would feature one member of the royal family to prove they're not what they're perceived as (by the West). Somewhere around 2002-03, when I was editing a magazine, someone told me it wasn't appropriate to put my full name in the magazine. Of course, I didn't listen to them. I have always been rebellious.
Can privilege also be a burden?
I am blessed to have an HRH prefixed to my name, but even I cannot do whatever I want whenever I want. I have to be very careful, which is fine because I appreciate what I have. My mother used to tell me, "You have done nothing to earn this title, your great grandfathers did. So, you better prove yourself." Which is why I want to have a signature in life.
When did you come into your own?
When I was 36, I understood what my mission in life was. I asked myself why I was here. It was a very tough journey because I had to be honest with myself. I had to know what I truly believed in or what I wanted in life. The hardest thing is life is to really know who you are; it takes a hero to know that. I did some soul-searching for over two years and then realised that I already had a gift - when I spoke, others listened. Doing good is not just about money, it is about you being an inspiration. In a way, it's not a burden but a challenge for me to add to the title.
What are the challenges of being a woman who is unafraid to speak her mind?
To be honest, nothing. You can tell a person he or she is ugly in a way that will not make you feel as though you're criticising them. It's up to you how you deliver the message. If you're smart, you will know how to deliver a message. The most important thing is to know who you are talking to. If s/he is the right person who is genuinely concerned about the topic, they will actually listen to you. I never faced any harsh rejection for what I am doing because I am careful about what I say and who I say it to.
Would you say it's the dawn of a new society in Saudi Arabia?
Even I cannot keep up with the changes taking place in Saudi Arabia because they're happening so fast. It's very smart to get it all out there and allow it to sink in and let people get used to it. At the end of the day, Saudi Arabia was like that in the 70s. We used to have seminars and events. An abaya was literally like a shawl. What we are doing now is we are going back to what we were, but in a moderate way.