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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 Faye BowersStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 13, 2004



RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA

The last of four parts

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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.

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.

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