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Inter Press Service, March 30, 2004
SAUDI ARABIA: WOMEN SAY RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS BLOCK THEIR RIGHTS

BYLINE: By Peyman Pejman

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- Discussing the role and rights of women in this highly conservative and tightly ruled kingdom is a touchy subject, whether the interlocutor is a man or a woman.

In a society where women constitute the majority of the population and account for more university graduates than men, they have few of the rights that most of Western society usually grants.

They are not allowed to study any subject they want - law and engineering, for example, are closed to them. They cannot vote, travel without the explicit approval of husband or a male guardian, drive, or work in most government offices. Even when hired in a private office, they are usually put in a separate room from men.

And, what perhaps has attracted the attention of the human rights and feminist groups in the West the most, is the fact that they have to wear 'abayas' - the neck-to-ankle black robe, and cover their hair with a black scarf.

Saudi women inside the country say that while they welcome some pressure from outside on their conservative government to give women more rights, the emphasis is often on religious matters that are not as important to Saudi women as having other social and political rights.

Samar Fatani, one of the Saudi women active in promoting women's rights, says people in this birthplace of Islam are conservative by nature and there is little room for discussion when it comes to 'abaya'.

"I don't think the 'abaya' is an issue in our country. We really value our Islamic traditions. And Saudi Arabia has a special place in the Muslim world, so I think as Muslims we need to set an example. There is no debate over that issue," she tells IPS. Maybe, maybe not.

Already there are women on the streets, in shopping malls, upper-class restaurants, or private offices, who waste little time loosening their cover, or taking off their scarf when they can. In many places, simple and loose covers have given place to tight, artsy ones and many women openly talk about the day they can choose lighter colors, not just black.

Women caused a political and social storm earlier this year when many of them, with the blessing of the government that sponsored the event, completely took off their 'abaya' and scarf and openly mingled with men at an international economic conference held here in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's second largest city.

The conference included luminaries such as former President Bill Clinton and the opening speech was given by Lubna Oyalan, the female chairman of one of the largest private-sector companies in Saudi Arabia. The conference caused an uproar among the conservatives who said women had gone 'too far'. The highest religious authority in the country, the mufti, issued an edict condemning their behavior, saying women should adhere to modesty in this holy land.

"I warn against the dire consequences of these acts," said the mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh. "What is even more painful is that such outrageous behavior should have happened in Saudi Arabia, the land of the two holy shrines Mecca and Medina, whose rulers consistently abided by Islamic law without fear of criticism."

Many Saudi women say what they need most is not a debate over what they can or cannot wear, but gaining social respect and political equality.

Kinda Bulkhair, a Saudi woman in her 20s who was educated outside the country and works as a journalist at one of the two English dailies in Saudi Arabia, says if she could create a model Saudi woman, the emphasis would be on empowering her to contribute more to the society and get credit for it.

"I think she would stick to her ideology. She still would dress conservatively, but she'd be working in managerial positions. She'd be just as important as a man. Social importance and respect for the woman is what is missing. It is all cultural," Bulkhair explains. "It has nothing to do with religion. It is all about cultural backwardness of men in this society."

Part of that respect is about allowing women to work openly.

The country has an unemployment rate of between eight to 30 percent -- depending on whose figures you believe -- and that is just among the men. But Saudi Arabia is also in the midst of a heated debate about economic reform, opening up the country to outside investment and technology, and increasing productivity by better educating the kind of workforce needed in the 21st century.

Many government and business leaders admit that women in this country are better educated and more motivated than men. If Saudi Arabia is serious about opening up its markets and become more competitive in the world, it should take a more serious look at allowing women enter the workforce, they say.

Loud and active as they might have become, and with the support from the government they might have, female empowerment is still a painful boon to many conservative and fundamentalist elements of this society.

Even within Islamic trends, opinions range widely. While some on the extreme right would grant nothing more than confining a woman to the four walls of a house, there are some who are more willing to reach a compromise.

"We have to force some conservatives to give up most of their opinion but it does not mean we have to demolish all boundaries," says Mohsen al-Awaji, an Islamist activist. "We have our understanding of women's role in society. Of course, it is not the way a woman is enjoying rights in our society now, but it is also not the way to adopt from this society or that," al-Awaji says. Although al-Awaji says he considers himself on the moderate side of the argument within the conservative community, his vision of what could be allowed for women might fall way short of what many Saudi women would be willing to accept.

He says he would agree to let Saudi women have their own national identification card, vote, and just maybe let them drive. But he is adamantly against women working side by side with men, loosening or removing the 'abaya', or letting them travel without the consent of a male guardian.

But not all of the skepticism about the future of women in Saudi Arabia comes from conservative men. Some women say they who prefer the status quo because of their cultural and religious views.

Other women say they have seen in the past debates like the ones now going on in Saudi society, and are disheartened because they have not seen any success from them.

"Well, every time I hear something about that, I hope that it is going to be good because there have been many debates and nothing major has happened so far," says Ghada Addas, a working mother in her twenties.

<< Inter Press Service -- 3/30/04 >>



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