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In rare public dialogue, Saudi women talk rights

By Faiza Saleh AmbahCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 14, 2004


Saudi women cannot check into a hotel without a male family member. Stories about the right to drive and spousal abuse are often kept out of the kingdom's media by editors concerned for their jobs.

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But in the past year, some of those taboos have been lifted, at least temporarily. In fact, when the first government-sponsored conference on women's issues was announced early this year, there was a spontaneous and unprecedented outpouring of public support.

Groups of women, individuals, and members of charitable and cultural societies from across the country flooded the council's offices with working papers, surveys, suggestions, and demands. "The announcement made women act on a need that has been building up for years," says Fatima Naseef, an Islamic scholar and university lecturer. Dr. Naseef got together with 32 women from different parts of Saudi Arabia and put together a seven-page document of their requests, including a safe house for battered spouses and a female-staffed office to advise women on their rights under Islamic law concerning divorce, child custody, support and alimony.

The three-day conference on women, which ends Monday, is the third in a series of forums initiated by the country's reform-minded Crown Prince Abdullah. It follows previous meetings on political reform and combating terrorists. The forums' recommendations are nonbinding, but are part of the House of Saud's strategy to pressure militant religious figures and the extremists who have attacked the vital Saudi oil sector, killing and kidnapping foreigners. The fact that the conferences are being held at all, say some analysts, is an indication that conservative clerics are on the defensive.

Spurred by the coming conference, women's issues have been given unprecedented attention on Saudi television programs, radio shows, newspapers, and private meetings in recent weeks. Saudis have seen debates on the pros and cons of women driving, how the court system and divorce laws are skewed in favor of men, the high unemployment women suffer, and whether desegregated workplaces violate Islamic law.

Earlier this month the Council of Ministers - the most powerful government body - issued a nine-point plan urging the creation of more job opportunities for women.

Saudi authorities have just approved the establishment of an all-women industrial city that will host training centers and employ approximately 10,000 women at more than 80 factories, the city's main investor announced Saturday. Hessa Aloun, who runs an investment company and is also a member of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, told the Associated Press that two companies, one Chinese and one Malaysian, have already signed agreements to start training programs in early 2005. "We have a large women cadre that wants to work in the industrial field, but without proper training this is not possible," Ms. Aloun said.

Still, even the nine-point plan includes the caveat that all reforms must be in accord with sharia or Islamic law. And what is permissible in Islam is open to interpretation. Saudi activists say that is precisely why progress has been so hard to come by.

"In Saudi Arabia it's taking us a long time to move forward because we're still discussing basics. We're still debating whether it's permissible in Islam for women to drive or to work alongside men. Neither is against our religion, the taboo has only been passed down through local traditions and customs," says Maha Fitaihi, one of the conference's participants.

Though reform has been on the Crown Prince's agenda for years, the events of Sept. 11, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, and a campaign of violence by militant extremists in Saudi Arabia that has taken the lives of at least 80 people, have accelerated the need for change.