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Saudi Arabia: Women Seek Change, But Embrace Islamic Traditions

Women remain a largely invisible element in Saudi Arabia's conservative and strictly segregated society. Saudi females lack many of the rights taken for granted by women in other parts of the world. But even those women pushing for change in the kingdom say that for them, liberation is not a matter of Western-style feminism, and that Islamic traditions are a vital part of their beliefs.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; 26 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- For Saudi Arabians, the role of women in society is an uncomfortable subject.

A mixture of tradition and a strict interpretation of Islam restricts Saudi women from driving, voting, working in most government offices and pursuing certain university degrees. They are also forbidden to travel without the explicit consent of a husband, father, or male guardian.

They are also required to wear the abaya -- a neck-to-ankle black robe -- and cover their hair with a black scarf. In restaurants, banks, and other public places, women must enter and exit through special doors.

Many Saudi women say they are eager to see their country change, and to gain the social rights they have long been deprived of. At the same time, they caution, they are not looking for Western-style liberation.

One woman said her ideal is a Saudi woman who retains her traditions but plays a far broader role in society.
Samar Fatani, a Saudi women's rights activist, said people in Saudi Arabia -- the birthplace of Islam -- are conservative by nature. She said few women are interested in giving up traditional garments like the abaya.

"I don't think the abaya is an issue in our country," said Fatani. "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."

Some Saudi women might disagree, however. It is possible to see women -- in shopping malls, upscale restaurants or private offices -- who are quick to loosen or even remove their headscarves.

In many places, loose abayas have given way to more form-fitting, decorative ones. Many women say they look forward to the day they can wear light colors, and not just black.

A number of women set off a political and social storm earlier this year when they shed their abayas and scarves and wore contemporary clothes at an international economic conference in the Saudi city of Jeddah.

The women, who mingled freely with the men attending the conference, were there with the blessing of the Saudi government, which sponsored the event.

But the conference spurred an angry edict from the country's grand mufti condemning the behavior of the female participants and saying women should adhere to stricter standards of modesty.

Still, for many Saudi women, confining the debate over rights to what they can and cannot wear is oversimplifying the issue, and bowing to pressure from feminist movements outside the kingdom.

Kinda Bulkhair is a Saudi woman in her 20s who was educated outside the country. She said that for her, the issue is not the abaya, but rights and respect. She said her ideal is a Saudi woman who retains her traditions but plays a far broader role in society. "I think she would stick to her ideology," Bulkhair said. "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. It has nothing to do with religion. [It is more] about cultural backwardness."

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

Many government and business leaders say women are often better educated and more motivated than their male counterparts. Their presence in the workforce could be a boon as Riyadh works to reposition itself on the changing world market.

But while there is much support for female empowerment among Saudi secular society, it is still a painful and often contentious topic for many of the kingdom's conservative and fundamentalist voices.

Mohsen al-Awaji is a former political science professor who was jailed in the 1990s for his opposition to the state. He now considers himself a moderate Islamist, and advocates some reforms for women -- allowing them to vote, and possibly to drive.

But he stops there. Women should not socialize with men, he said. Nor should they work in the same office with men or travel without the approval of a male guardian. "We have to force some conservatives to give up most of their opinions against it, but it does not mean we have to demolish all boundaries," al-Awaji said. "We have our understanding of women's role in society. Of course, [a woman should enjoy rights] in our society, but it is not [right] to adopt [ideas] from this society or that."

For many Saudi women, however, the latest round of debate is just a new chapter in a old story. Ghada Addas, a journalist and working mother, said she has heard these discussions many times before -- but seen little change as a result.

"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 to this point," Addas said.