SAUDI WOMEN: QUIET REVOLUTION BEHIND THE VEIL
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — Selwa Abdulaziz lays a square of heavy black gauze across her eyes and face, overlapping the ends at the back of her head. Only a small patch of forehead remains.
But she is not through yet. She slips into the black abayah, covering her hair and the rest of her forehead - and her body. Smooth white hands and leather-covered feet are all that peep from beneath the blackness.
From the front she looks like a huge black moth. Only now can she go outside.
She walks, her face and figure hidden from prying eyes. Her female friends, classmates, and teachers may see her, as well as men to whom she is related. Eventually, her -husband will get to look behind that veil - perhaps, these days , even before she marries him.
Selwa has a master's degree in sociology, is studying for her doctorate, has published articles and short stories, speaks two languages. But for now, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1981, Selwa remains hidden beneath the veil.
Selwa removes the veil and the abayah once she is safely inside the women's college. She reveals long, dark hair, questioning eyes, a silky floor-length skirt, and a bright pullover sweater. Unencumbered by the black outer garments, she talks of women's rights, women's struggles, of changes she says must be made.
''Many, many women want this,'' she says. ''Because we have to change.''
Selwa is not her real name - it is still too soon for women to speak openly of liberation in this closed, religious, conservative society. ''Say anything you want,'' she says, ''but don't say who I am.''
She talks of missed opportunities, of resentment at being offered only subjects deemed suitable for women - education, sociology, and medicine. She would like to study -physics. She would like to study and work in the field of her choice. She wants the educational system to stop ''fostering the old values.'' She wants the society to stop telling women that they are being educated only to become better wives and mothers.
Selwa is one of a growing number of young Saudi women who are staging a quiet but persistent revolution they hope will gain them some measure of freedom. Their struggle comes at a time when the society itself is pushing and straining into the 20th century - replacing tents with skyscrapers, illiterate sheikhs with Princeton-educated leaders.
The women are a tiny minority - an upper-class elite. And perhaps their most implacable foe is another elite group - the conservative religious establishment. Religious leaders have pressured the government to halt the forward movement of women. One of their recent successes was to forbid the daily newspapers to publish the photograph of a woman.
Recently, one of Saudi Arabia's holiest clergymen -addressed a gathering of Muslim women in Riyadh. Normally, no man could stand before women. But it was permissible in his case - he is blind. A woman asked whether it was sinful for her to pluck her eyebrows. The answer was yes.
Despite its hush-hush nature, however, the women's movement here is characterized by an excitement long -absent from the American movement. Money and foreigners have opened the country to new ideas. The Saudi populace - who for centuries never strayed from their barren homeland - now travel freely to Europe and the United States. Youths are outstripping their parents in education. (Selwa, with her master's degree, has parents who can neither read nor write.) Newly aware that the veil is viewed by the world as a symbol of repression, Saudis are beginning to discuss -women's issues openly.
Even the government-controlled newspapers have become a forum. In a letter to the editor, one woman says Saudi men are dissatisfied with Saudi women because of the lure of foreign femmes fatales; she suggests restricting travel abroad. A second woman hotly replies that Saudi women are themselves to blame, with their narrow attitudes and resistance to change. A Saudi poet decries the waste of women, saying his country is ''breathing with just one lung.''
Free-lance female columnists, writing from their homes (they cannot, of course, even go to the newspaper office), go so far as to speak of revolution - a dangerous concept in this tightly controlled monarchy.
''We talk about having abayah-burning parties,'' said a foreign professor at a women's college. ''It is gratifying. You don't really expect to find all this behind that veil.''
The country's few female university students are confined to their own campus. One particularly rebellious group of students - properly veiled, of course - showed up for a -lecture at the male campus. Flustered university officials hurriedly stuck them in a separate room. The women scribbled their questions on scraps of paper to be carried to the speaker, who made jokes about their presence. But at least they heard the speech.
Other, more important changes are being made behind the scenes. The University of Riyadh is quietly awarding scholarships for women to study abroad. Students at home can benefit from the lectures of male professors via closed-circuit television. And a small group of women actually attends graduate classes taught by men - but this is kept secret from the society at large.
Officials describe the pace of change as three steps forward, two backward. ''Women's education is really on a string here,'' said a professor at the women's campus. ''We have this Women's Center, but we can't take it for granted.'' Even now there are groups in the country who are trying to shut down the center, saying it is unnecessary and goes against Islam.
Progress is equally painstaking outside the enlightened atmosphere of academia. Women sometimes shed their veils while shopping - or at least lift them enough for a peek at the merchandise. But even that most sacrosanct of rituals - marriage - has not escaped change.
''Girls are rebelling against arranged marriages,'' said a US-educated Saudi professor, recently married to a young woman who insisted on meeting him before answering his proposal. She had been expected to make her decision on the basis of a portrait in oils he had sent to her family.
''They are saying, 'Before I answer, I want to see his face, to talk to him.' And the mother and father should have nothing to do with the decision,'' he continued. ''This is tremendous progress.''
Surprisingly, however, ask a Saudi woman what troubles her, and she is likely to echo the complaints of her Western counterparts - lack of day-care facilities and chronic fatigue at being a full-time employee plus a wife and mother.
Many Saudi women marry in their teens and bear several children in quick succession. Only then do they work or to go school. That means they must juggle the demands of the job with the responsiblities of the house.
''This is a phenomenon unique to Saudi Arabia - women marrying at 16 and still being channeled into professional life,'' said Dr. Yakin Erturk, a professor of sociology at the Women's Center. ''What makes that possible is the wealth. Most of the girls at the center are of upper-class background.''
But even Saudi women who push for change are reluctant to embrace the American model. ''I think Saudi women see a lot that they do not like about the Western woman's life,'' said Jo Franklin-Trout, a producer for the Public Broadcasting Service who was interviewed by Riyadh's English-speaking Arab News after spending two months in Saudi Arabia filming a documentary. ''They are appalled at the sort of disintegrated family structure in the United States, and they feel it leads to some unhappy people and very shaky values.''
Many Saudi women insist that change take place within the context of Islam and a society that highly values family ties and relationships. Some also find bewildering the world's singling out of Saudi women for attention and analysis. ''Saudi women are good women,'' said a teacher, as if the West's critical viewpoint somehow denigrated her countrywomen's inherent worth. ''They really are.''