Only a few days ago, I heard from a friend who had traveled to Saudi Arabia on business. From his hotel, he tried to access our first website, PoetsandQuants.com, and couldn't get through. It was blocked by the government. I was as surprised as anyone by the news. After all, the site isn't commenting or encouraging any of the uprising across the Arab/Muslim world. It isn't a public policy or political site. It doesn't voice Democratic ideals, freedom of speech, or any other rights, privileges or responsibilities we all take for granted in the U.S.
The site is about graduate business education, for goodness sake. The stories are on business schools, MBA programs, students, faculty, and corporate recruiters. The articles can be probing, but mostly on the value of an MBA degree, the increasingly higher cost of getting one, and the quality of the institutions that grant the degree. So why in the world would Saudi Arabia, or probably more likely some low-level censor in that country, want to block PoetsandQuants.com from Saudi citizens.
And then I remembered a rather brief article we ran under the headline: "My Story: From Saudi Arabia to Wharton." Published last October, it's the first-person narrative of a young woman and her remarkable journey to the U.S. to pursue a world-class MBA. It tells the story of Shereen Tawfiq, the first ever female student from Saudi Arabia at Wharton, who courageously challenged centuries old cultural values rooted in male dominance.
After graduating with an English Literature degree from a Saudi university, Tawfiq wanted to, in her words, "do something challenging that could have an impact on life. But women employment was limited. The only options were found in women-only environments such as teachers at girls-only schools or tellers or customer service representatives at women-only retail branches of local banks."
Tawfiq got lucky. The Saudi government began imposing quotas to increase Saudi employment at large institutions. A bank in Jeddah hired her to replace a poorly paid expat. She began an administrative job, worked hard and tried to get a better position as a credit analyst. But Tawfiq was rejected many times.
As she told us, "the bank's management didn't say it was because I was a woman, but I think society just wasn't ready. I kept pushing and, at last, eight months later, I got the job. My manager congratulated me, yet he candidly told me not to look for any promotions. The business community wasn't ready to accept women and business owners may have felt uncomfortable dealing with them directly. 'I'm not willing to jeopardize the bank's reputation,' my manager said."
All in all, it's the story of a woman who relentlessly worked to get ahead--and in fact managed to break through several barriers. It's an inspiring tale. And I suppose that's why Saudi Arabia has blocked my site: So other women in Saudi Arabia won't be inspired to rise above the prejudice and the traditions that have kept so many intelligent and thoughtful women down.