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Voices from behind the veil

Women in conservative Islamic societies talk about their lives, and how the West perceives them.

(Page 4 of 4)

Women without Baeshen's means may have a harder time, but change is filtering down the socioeconomic ladder, says Abubaker A. Bagader, a sociology professor at Jeddah's King Abdul Aziz University. Travel, satellite TV, and the Internet provide some impetus for change, but much of it comes from within, he says.

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While Saudi Arabia is one of the wealthiest Muslim nations, it has one of the lowest female labor rates in the Middle East. It's literacy rate among women lags behind Egypt, Algeria, and Libya. But Saudi Arabia has also undergone a huge rural-urban shift. Sixty percent of the population is now under age 20, and live in nuclear families. As attitudes change, more women are being educated. In a 1990 survey, Mr. Bagader found 80 percent of men wanted a college-educated wife, up from just over 50 percent in 1979. Very slowly, more women are working - out of necessity as much as by choice - as a lackluster economy squeezes incomes.

Fatin Bundagji, director of Women's Training Programs at Jeddah's Chamber of Commerce, helps women polish their skills for the job market, but with so few places available it can be discouraging work. "A friend of mine at a government office has 90,000 women's resumes," she says. "Where are these women now? Where do girls go when they graduate? Nowhere. And I'm educating them even further to go nowhere. It really saddens me."

It is almost 2 a.m. and the discussion in Neda Hariri's living room is still going strong. Her mother, Mrs. Abdul Majid, is complaining about the requirement that women get male permission to travel. "Some [Islamic] scholars say no, you don't need it," she fumes. "I think it's just wrong."

When Saudi women talk about restrictions that chafe, they sometimes point out that the Islamic basis for the rule is debatable if not invisible. More often than not they point to culture as the impediment to being more politically active or more mobile.

Attieh says the answer lies in creating change within the culture. And if women are stereotypically confined to the spheres of home, children, and schooling, she says that can be a strength. "There is great potential for change and social power there," she says. "Cultural rules change with time. Just look at your mother's life and your own."

Some, though not many, say Attieh has a silent partner in the government. In Jeddah, it has backed the recent creation of two new women's colleges and set up a national employment and training project. And it recently began issuing Saudi women their own identification card, instead of a paper that only identified them by their male guardian. Some women see this as a step toward allowing women to drive. "The government is on the side of women," insists a male media analyst. "But it's held captive to the [religious conservatives]."

A crackdown on Saudi women followed the Gulf War, when critics say the government moved to appease religious conservatives angry about the stationing of US troops on Saudi soil. Some worry that this may happen again, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the US and its subsequent war on Afghanistan.

But even so, women and analysts say change is simply a matter of time. Iran's women have voting power. And like Iranians, Saudi women are becoming increasingly well educated, a point observers stress strongly. "Watch what educated Muslim women do," says Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, an American writer and filmmaker who focuses on Middle Eastern women and the family. "They will be a force to be reckoned with."

Hariri who dropped her university studies when she got pregnant, plans to go back one day. Looking ahead to her long-term hopes and goals, she starts thinking aloud, her kohl-rimmed eyes fixed in the distance. More freedom, she says, the ability to drive and choose a profession, the chance to vote and be politically active. "Because I'm a human being and I should have my freedom," she says, snapping back into focus. "Especially from my husband's family," she adds, and the room around her echoes her laugh.