Saudi women, long silent, gain a quiet voice

Despite graduating from universities at a faster rate than men, Saudi women face an array of challenges in this conservative Arab country.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The last of four parts

Selwa al- Hazzaa is exceptional; she says so herself.

She is a woman living in Saudi Arabia. She not only holds a job, but heads the most prestigious ophthalmology clinic in Riyadh. As a doctor, she treats more males than females - from "the most distinguished [i.e., King Fahd] to the janitors, and I love them all," she says.

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She also was recently appointed associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. Add to that a husband, three lively children, and a role as a very vocal advocate for women's issues. In fact, the Saudi government calls on her for advice on women's issues.

"I am the exception," Dr. Hazzaa says, sitting tall in her white lab coat as a teaboy in a brown uniform enters her brightly lit office to take orders. "But there are a lot [of women] like me. And it's us, the people who are the exception, that will make the difference for those who are not."

"Those who are not" make up a much larger proportion of the population. Only some 5 percent of the workforce are women. This is still a society completely dominated by men: Women cannot go out in public without a male chaperone or without being covered from head to toe in black. They cannot drive, nor can they run a business in their own name; women must have a mahram, an agent, usually the closest male relative.

Of course, women can't vote or participate in politics at any level - nor can most men. The government recently called for municipal elections to be held within a year. But it's not clear yet whether or when those will be held and whether women will be permitted to participate. How much the government opens political participation will be watched the world over, as that will play a key role in determining the stability of a country - and region - that has for decades nurtured terror-minded jihadists like those who flew into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

But there has been some progress. The Majlis ash-Shura, the 120-member appointed council that studies laws and makes recommendations to the king, was recently given more teeth.

The Majlis now, for example, can introduce or amend a law without first going to the king for approval, according to Abdulmuhsin al-Akkas, a member of the Majlis.

Moreover, the Majlis recently appointed three women to serve on an advisory council. Hazzaa is one.

"They call us in on certain women's issues," Hazzaa says. "Like the dowry being too expensive [or] breastfeeding. Another issue was about opening certain institutes for marriage counseling.... We say, 'give us other things, not just women's issues.' "

And Saudi Arabia launched an all-news satellite television channel this week, featuring the country's first female news reader. But this is still a very conservative society, Hazzaa says, and creating additional opportunities for women will take time.

Scare jobs, uncertain futures

Still, more women are graduating from universities today than men. According to the government's education figures for 2000, women made up 58 percent of the nearly 32,000 students in higher education institutions. But jobs are few, and many women - probably most - are not as hopeful about their futures as Hazzaa.

However, these women are not only speaking out, but staking out larger claims and demanding to be reckoned with in this tightly controlled society.

Many of the women interviewed for this article - ranging from poor women with few opportunities to well-educated women who have traveled the world - are frustrated with the pace of reform. At the same time, they worry about pushing their cultural boundaries too quickly, possibly losing more ground than they gain.

Norah al-Sowayan, for instance, was one of 50 females who dared take a joy ride through the capital in 1990. But that adventure backfired. Women drivers, emboldened by the Gulf War and presence of US troops (including women) in their country, lost more than they gained in their attempt to attain more rights.

Up to that point, women did not drive because of cultural traditions. There was such a public backlash, however - mainly from the deeply religious establishment - that the religious leaders issued a fatwa (edict) against women driving, and the king banned women from driving.

"The sheikhs will be a big problem [in making] all these changes," Ms. Sowayan says. "I think the government is not sure how to go with change and the religious movement." But, she adds, "We just had religious opinions before. Now we are hearing other opinions."

A need for change from within

These women also insist the changes must come from them, rather than through imposition by the West, or other outside influences.

They see themselves as pioneers, and even compare their situation to that of Susan B. Anthony and other American women who pushed for women's rights, including the right to vote, which was won only after the United States was 144 years old. Saudi Arabia is young, by comparison, some 72 years old.

"I think people in the West have to leave us at our own pace," Hazzaa says. "We, as Saudi women, are determined we will change.... Yes, I would like things to move faster. I want it easier for my daughter. I hope she doesn't have to do what I'm doing. We're pioneers. So whatever we do is going to be much more difficult than the generation after us."

Hazzaa rolls her sleeves up and explains just how far this society has traveled in one generation.

Her own mother was only 13 years old when Hazzaa was born - a child bride in an arranged marriage. She was also illiterate. When Hazzaa's mother was a child, there weren't schools for girls; those didn't open until 1960, when King Faisal declared education should be granted to girls as well as boys (who received public education only in 1952).

Hazzaa's maternal uncles also fought the king's decision. The king had to send in Army tanks to force these men and other parents to send their girls to school. Hazzaa's mother bore five daughters in all by the time she was 19 years old. At the age of 22, she moved with her husband and young daughters to the United States, where she began attending school to learn to read and write. All five daughters are college educated, and working to advance women's rights.

Hazzaa, besides her eye-clinic work and advisory work for the Majlis, speaks publicly whenever and wherever she can - at her own expense, she insists.

"You have got to work on people," she insists, her shoulder-length hair whipping from side to side as she emphasizes her points. "We as a country are very conservative - look, our houses are behind walls."

She goes on to say that covering up and driving are minor issues compared with the larger challenges they face - like working and participation in the political process. "We are just now getting on TV, and people are starting to feel comfortable about it," she says.

Sowayan concurs on covering up. "I don't accept covering," Sowayan says, but she does it and says it's not that bad. "Sometimes I cover my face, sometimes not. It ... depends on where you go - and how you want to be accepted."

An American woman who married a Saudi and raised four children here, who asked not to be named, agrees. But like the other women, she would like the pace of reform to move much faster. Her daughter just returned from the US for the Christmas holidays. She's graduated from a university in the US, and doesn't think she wants to work as hard as her mother, Hazzaa, Sowayan, and the others.

"She says she cannot believe that in this day and age we are even having a conversation about women's rights to vote," the American-born woman says. "She's ready to bolt - she wants to live life, she doesn't want to be a Susan B. Anthony."

Hazzaa, for her part, says the fight is worth it. "I have to be honest," she says with an ear-to-ear smile. "I don't think I could have accomplished [this] anywhere else.... I know I have to work ... five times as hard as a man. But I always say it balances out. I get five times the credit."

Previous stories in the series ran Jan. 12, Jan. 9, and Jan. 8.

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