Status of Women Evolves Slowly in Saudi Arabia

Kuwaiti women rather than US soldiers are seen as the best model

IT was supposed to be a collision of cultures: thousands of jeep-driving, rifle-toting, United States servicewomen showing their veiled Saudi sisters the way to the 20th century. But nearly three months after US soldiers began assembling in the Saudi Arabian desert, American ways have hardly made a dent in the armor-plated traditions of this technically modern but socially conservative society.

To be sure, the huge Western presence in a country so long isolated has forced such issues as women's rights to the surface. But if the status of women is to change, many Saudis say, it will be for internal reasons and not because of external pressure.

``It's a jarring event'' says economics professor Walid Hashem, referring to the Gulf crisis, ``but it's not jarring our beliefs and culture.''

The slow-motion changes that have affected the status of women in Saudi Arabia began in the 1960s, when formal education was first provided for girls.

Since then, a generation of women has passed through the university system and into the limited job market available to them.

Faced with the stark implications of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Saudi leaders have carried the process a small step further, opening the way for women volunteers to learn nursing and basic civil defense skills needed to cope with a possible wartime emergency.

Many women are now hoping that the Gulf crisis will begin to do for Saudi women what World War II did for American women.

``Now that you are in a crisis, you have to tap everybody,'' says a university professor who teaches in the segregated women's division of one large Saudi university. ``Once women become involved, it won't be easy to send them home.''

Saudi Arabia has long been insulated from war and economic hardship, the two catalysts that have driven women out of the home and into the workplace in most other countries.

The strict brand of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia has largely confined women to the domestic sphere, closing off most career opportunities and even denying women the privilege of driving.

``This is the custom and they accept it,'' explains a young Saudi businessman.

``Fields like engineering are not suitable for a women because they involve hard work. Women are not physically strong enough. I'm sure the women are happy that way,'' he adds.

``Women should be cared for,'' adds a male university professor. ``They are the responsibility of men.''

Such views are strongly reinforced by news reports of broken families, teenage pregnancies, and drug abuse in Western society, which evoke a fascinated interest here.

The fact that tens of thousands of Saudis have traveled, lived, and been educated in the West has done little to alter the kingdom's traditional view of the role of women in society.

IN addition to the prohibition against driving, women are forbidden to study such fields as engineering and political science, while as graduates they are mostly limited to jobs that are an extension of their perceived traditional roles as homemakers, namely, nursing and teaching.

Meanwhile, the 7 percent of women who do work are largely confined to segregated workplaces.

Asked what changes they would favor most, many younger women say reform begins with expanding available fields of university study, then allowing women to work side-by-side with men.

``There are thousands of women at the universities,'' says a Saudi woman journalist. ``But what are they being educated for? They graduate qualified and there's nothing they can do.''

Women's rights advocates acknowledge that American women offer no useful role model for an Islamic society. Far better reference points are the thousands of Kuwaiti women, who have flooded into Saudi Arabia since the Iraqi invasion. Unlike their Saudi counterparts, many have driven and worked in an integrated business setting.

``We can identify with the Kuwaiti women,'' says the journalist. ``They drive, they work in banks among men, but at the same time they are Arab. It proves you can do this and remain Islamic.''

``It's a right in Islam, so we're not asking for something that's not allowed,'' adds a woman undergraduate at a Saudi university. ``After all, the prophet's wife was a merchant.''

But such logic has largely been ignored in this bastion of social conservatism, where even the large majority of women appear to be satisfied with their limited role in society.

``Most women are content,'' acknowledges the professor, who has an active career of her own. ``They don't feel the need for change.''

Adds a Jiddah business executive, with more than a little understatement: ``There is little chance that the process of social change will get carried away in Saudi Arabia.''

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