New Rights, and Challenges, for Saudi Women

Like those of its competitors in New York or London, the sleek glass and steel offices of media company Rotana are filled with preening attitude and fashion-conscious staffers: assistants teeter in shoes that might have absorbed much of their monthly paycheck; executives parade the halls in power suits and pencil skirts. But Rotana isn’t in New York or London; it’s in Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia, a country in which women normally adhere to a strict dress code in public — a black cloak called an abaya, a headscarf and a veil, the niqab, which covers everything but their eyes.

There’s another reason many Saudis would find Rotana shocking: men and women working side by side. The sight unnerves enough men who come looking for a job that human-resources manager Sultana al-Rowaili has developed a trick to see if a male applicant can handle working in a mixed-gender office. She arranges for a female colleague to interrupt the initial interview, and watches to see if the man loses concentration or stares too much. Sometimes even that isn’t necessary. Many men are undone by the very idea of being interviewed by a woman. “They are in a state of shock to see a woman in a position of authority and to have to ask her for a job,” al-Rowaili says.

Saudi men may have to start getting used to such situations. True, Rotana remains an anomaly protected by the position and progressive ideals of its owner — global investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. And Saudi women still can’t drive and legally can’t even leave the house to shop, let alone get a job, without a male family member’s permission. Yet under the guidance of a few members of the Saudi royal family — in particular the current King, Abdullah — the kingdom is slowly changing. Mixed-gender workplaces are becoming more common, especially in banks and good hospitals, where female doctors are not unusual. “People used to say, ‘Why is she working? Why does she need the money?’ Now they say, ‘It takes a woman to solve a problem,’” says Norah al-Malhooq, an administrator at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Riyadh.

The government is expanding educational opportunities for women by building women’s universities (as opposed to segregated campuses at male-dominated universities); last month it even launched the kingdom’s first coeducational university. The state is trying to encourage women’s entry into the workforce, and is sponsoring initiatives to protect women and children from domestic abuse. And it is pushing Saudis to discuss the notion of empowerment, formerly such a taboo subject that even the word was off-limits in newspapers. “The message is that women are coming,” says Dr. Maha Almuneef, one of six women named earlier this year to the Shura council, a 156-person advisory body appointed by the King. “It’s a good first step. The King and the political system are saying that the time has come. There are small steps now. There are giant steps coming. But most Saudis have been taught the traditional ways. You can’t just change the social order all at once.”

For the country’s feminist and human-rights activists, and the many others who would like more freedom, the pace of change remains painfully slow. Why, they wonder, doesn’t the King snap his fingers and remove some of the more obviously absurd obstacles to equality? For all the publicity about the new female members of the Shura Council, for instance, they still don’t have the voting rights of their male colleagues. “This is tokenism, it’s insulting,” says Hatoon Ajwad al-Fassi, a columnist and assistant professor of women’s history at King Saud University. “We are asking for full participation. All the doors that are closed for women should be open.” Given government restrictions on the right to assemble and discuss political issues even in private homes, al-Fassi says it’s impossible to know just how many Saudi women want change. “It’s an exaggeration to call it a women’s movement. But we are proud to say that something is going on in Saudi Arabia. We are not really free, but it is possible for women to express themselves as never before.”

Change, and Its Limits

Saudi Arabia’s western allies have been pushing it to reform its social and political arrangements since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia, where a conservative version of Islam, high unemployment, limited democratic rights and archaic attitudes to women fed a mood of unchecked radicalism among some young men. Last February, Abdullah announced a sweeping reshuffle of posts in government to remove some of the more old-style figures, including a top judge who once ruled it would be legal to kill the owners of a television station that broadcast “immorality.” Abdullah installed an Education Minister charged with ensuring that schools emphasize Islam’s tradition of tolerance, and a woman, Norah al-Faiz, to be Deputy Minister in charge of girls’ education, the first time a woman has held a Cabinet-level post.

Though al-Faiz is well known and admired, her appointment also reveals the limits to the changes under way in Saudi Arabia. Al-Faiz meets with her male colleagues only by videophone, asks her minister for permission to appear on television, declined to be photographed for this story and vented her frustration to the press when what appeared to be an old passport-style photograph of her (without a niqab) appeared on the Internet. Al-Faiz told TIME that she brings no special mandate beyond improving education for girls. “I don’t like quick action,” she says. “I’ll have to decide where the needs are and to rank them. I believe in teamwork.”

Al-Faiz’s caution is understandable. She’s being watched by the whole country. “The pressure is huge, not to make a mistake,” says Dr. Hanan al-Ahmady, a friend of al-Faiz, and her successor as head of the women’s department at the Institute of Public Administration, a government school for civil servants. “You have to prove you are not giving away your religious principles. You have to prove that participating in public affairs and taking leadership positions doesn’t jeopardize Islamic values and Saudi identity.”

In some ways, the official push for women’s rights seems like a training exercise, a kind of campaign to prepare Saudis for something new. “If we want to implement a new idea, first we have to discuss it,” says al-Faiz. “It’s not right to just make the decision.” Discussion as a way of making policy can be seen in the development of the National Family Safety Program, started in 1999 by a small group of professional women concerned about domestic abuse. As a measure of how seriously he takes the subject, Abdullah assigned his daughter, Princess Adelah, to spearhead the initiative, and in 2006, the group helped write the first laws making it illegal for husbands to abuse their wives and children. “For us as Arabs and Saudis and Muslims, you can’t believe in these values and look at these stories and not want to put an end to them,” Princess Adelah told TIME.

Much of the program’s energy is devoted to educating Saudi men that they no longer have the right to beat their wives and children, and it seems to be having some effect. This spring, the program organized a series of town hall-style meetings in cities around Saudi Arabia; Princess Adelah’s participation ensured that local officials attended. During a meeting in Abha, a city on the Red Sea, a senior judge argued that a husband sometimes needs to beat his wife — if she spends too much money shopping, for instance. The uproar from the women in the audience, and critical coverage by the local press, were signs that such attitudes are no longer acceptable. “One of the most important things my father did was initiate dialogue,” says Princess Adelah. “Women need to be heard, and no one can speak for women but women.”

But taking on domestic violence is hardly controversial. Critics outside the government say the state is still failing to take a systematic approach to dismantling gender barriers. While the government is trying to encourage women to enter the workforce, for example, there are still no clear guidelines as to what is legal and what is illegal in an office setting, according to Abdulaziz al-Gasim, a former judge who now runs his own law firm in Riyadh. “We would like to hire women,” he says. “Women in the law faculties send us their CVs. But where would we put them?” Without a separate entrance for women, or gender-specific meeting rooms, firms fear they could be prosecuted. There are also still no laws to protect women from harassment at work. “There is no meaning behind female education if they can’t enter the workforce,” says al-Gasim.

Making Haste Slowly

Government reformers defend the pace of change, arguing that it is actually quite rapid given the transformation Saudi society has undergone since oil riches first started to transform a nomadic culture. “Fifty-five years ago there was no education for girls,” says al-Faiz. “Fifty years ago people didn’t accept the idea of women working. Now everyone wants their girls or wives to work or go through higher education. I don’t think those kinds of changes have happened in any country as quickly as here.”

Millions of Saudis, of course, still adhere to the strict religious and social conservatism that dates to the 18th century pact made between Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a puritanical preacher, and the founder of the Saud dynasty Mohammed ibn Saud. And many conservatives resent the social changes the King is pushing. “Those around King Abdullah use his peaceful positions to impose secular values,” says conservative cleric Mohsen al-Awajy. “But Saudi society is a special, tribal society, and neither King Abdullah or anyone else can impose his own interpretation of Islam. They can do nothing without Islam. There is no Saudi Arabia without Islam. There is no royal family without Islam.”

There’s evidence, too, that many women don’t want radical change. A government poll in 2006 — one of the few attempts to gauge women’s opinions — found that 86% thought women shouldn’t work in a mixed environment, and 89% agreed women shouldn’t drive. Iman al-Alqeel, the editor of Hayat, a conservative magazine for girls, says most of her readers find the thought of working or studying around boys and men intimidating. “They want to be able to relax and not worry about what other people think about them,” she says, though that’s partly because Saudi men don’t know how to behave around women. “Before you bring in something new you have to fix the old habits,” she says. “If you want women to drive, send the men to driving school.”

Yet even Saudi’s brand of religious conservatism may slowly be changing. After a series of terrorist attacks in 2003, the government shut down extremist websites and arrested or muzzled those calling for jihad. The authorities have also ordered reforms in the religious police, the General Presidency for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which enforces conservative dress codes. The unit, which is widely feared, has gone so far as hire outside media consultants to make itself more public-friendly. And a government campaign on TV and billboards encourages men to be nicer to women with the slogan: “Satisfy Your Wife Emotionally and Protect Your Marriage.” Officers at the General Presidency stress that the religious police should help protect women from abuse and violence, and insist they no longer demand that women cover themselves. “Now we just tell people that covering up is the right thing to do,” says Bandar al-Mutairi, a Vice and Virtue officer in Riyadh. “Just like when you see someone smoking. You can’t take away their cigarette. You just tell them smoking is bad for you.”

Some democracy activists argue that Saudi rulers could do more, but use religion as an excuse for the slow pace of reform. “The idea is to delay the reforms based on the idea that society wouldn’t accept drastic changes,” says Mohammad al-Qahtani, a reform advocate and professor at the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic training institute. Awadh al-Badi, a political scientist at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, says the reason that King Abdullah and the royal family are still cautious on women’s rights is that they themselves are products of Saudi culture. “It’s a generational thing,” al-Badi says. “The King is an 85-year-old Arab man and he himself sees women in a certain way.” Abdullah, he thinks, struggles with the special burden of modernizing the home of Islam’s most revered sites. “But eventually, whatever the King decides the people will follow,” says al-Badi.

For that reason, progress on women’s rights may depend on who succeeds Abdullah. Several royal princes are in line for the throne, and some of them, like the King’s powerful half brother, Prince Nayef, are known for their conservative views. But as Saudi leaders try to wean the country’s economy off its almost total dependence on oil, and develop new industries, they are bound to find that it makes little sense to keep half the country’s human capital cooped up at home. Nor will the newly emerging class of Saudi professional women willingly go back to the way things once were. “We are not a bunch of Barbie dolls,” says al-Rowaili, the Rotana television executive. “All of us have faced so many challenges to get here. We are pioneers. And we are going to win.”

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