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