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Saudi Women Challenge Traditional Barriers in Male-Dominated Society - 2004-01-09


Women in Saudi Arabia find it hard to break the barrier of a male-dominated business world. The traditionally conservative society prefers its women at home and out of sight. However, as the country pursues political and economic reform, Saudi women are demanding their rights, too.

The chief of ophthalmology at King Faisal Specialist Hospital is a 45-year-old mother of three. When she took the post six years ago, she says she was the first Saudi woman to hold a top hospital post. Now, she says, there are at least ten other women in top management jobs at the hospital.

But Selwa al-Hazzaa acknowledges they are the exception in a male-dominated society that has only allowed Saudi girls to go to school since 1960.

She notes how much has changed in the more than 40 years since then. She remembers how her own family and others in the conservative region where she grew up fought the official decree on educating girls.

"They had to bring in army trucks to get the females out of the houses and force their parents to [let them] go to school," said Dr. al-Hazzaa. "My mother didn't go to school, because there were no schools for my mother. And here I am, the next generation, a full-fledged professor. So, can you imagine what we've done?"

Today, Saudi educators say, women account for more than half the students now enrolled in Saudi colleges and universities. But women account for less than five percent of the workforce. Foreign male workers still fill more than seven out of 10 jobs in Saudi Arabia.

And the women who do find work usually are segregated from men in the office or factory.

King Saud University Professor Alabdul Hai blames Saudi culture, not the Muslim religion, for this segregation. Mr. Hai teaches political science, and has written extensively on women's issues. He says women in other Islamic states are more politically and economically integrated.

"I haven't seen anything in ideal Islam banning or handicapping or restricting women at all levels, even to the level of leader of the state," he explained.

Ophthalmologist Selwa al-Hazzaa compares the Saudi woman's struggle for more rights to chipping away at a brick wall.

"People say Dr. Hazzaa you are the exception, not the rule," she said. "Yes, I am the exception but there's a lot like me, and it's us, the people who are the exception, that will make the difference for those who are not [at] the level we are."

In the ultra-conservative Saudi society, Muslim women must cover themselves from head to toe in black robes, known as abayas. Some also hide their faces behind thin black veils. They are not allowed to drive or travel with a male who is not their husband or close relative. In most public restaurants, women eat their meals in a family section screened off from any single males dining out front.

Religious police, known as the Mutawaeen, do not hesitate to stop a woman for smoking in public, baring an ankle or showing what they consider too much hair from under her required headscarf. Punishment can range from a harsh warning to a trip to the police station.

Still, some Saudi women are doing all they can to expedite government reform efforts.

Ophthalmologist al-Hazzaa and two other professional women - a women's college dean and a hospital administrator - are serving as advisers to the all-male constulative parliament, the Majlis ash Shura.

"They call us in on certain women's issues," she said. "We don't' sit with them. We sit in another room. They take our advice, and they act on it. We say give us other things, not just women's issues."

A government investment agency has opened a special center here in Riyadh to encourage investment from Saudi women.

"Our mission is to open doors for discussion, to broaden the fields for ladies," explained director Afaf Sulaiman al-Hamdan. "The Kingdom is going through change, and opening new areas for ladies."

In the more relaxed atmosphere of Saudi Arabia's western port city of Jeddah, the chamber of commerce already includes a committee of businesswomen.

Until now, women were encouraged to find jobs in the two fields, education and medicine, that were open to them. But Ms. al-Hamdan says more young women are seeking jobs in computer technology, communications and law, even though Saudi courts do not yet recognize women lawyers.

Many Saudi women run their own businesses, but many restrictions apply there, too. A male must register the company for a woman, and a male agent must handle any official transactions for her, restrictions that businesswomen are seeking to change.

The government is beginning to pay more attention to women's social problems. It is considering sponsoring marriage counseling centers, a move welcomed by private-sector social workers, who have been the only resource for marriage and child-abuse counseling.

Though Saudi society is changing, reforms are not moving fast enough for many young girls who have traveled and studied abroad. They find social restrictions grating. Meeting boys becomes a challenge, when families insist their daughters be chaperoned, and marriages are still being arranged for them.

Saudi teens hang out in shopping malls to flirt, but are chased by the mutawaeen, who consider unchaperoned encounters sinful.

Boys and girls often scribble their phone numbers on tiny slips of paper they roll up and toss at each other as they stroll past. More enterprising boys just toss an extra cell phone into a group of girls they can later call to flirt.

Saudi girls say the Internet, with its instant messaging, has also given them new ways to chat with boys far from the watchful eyes of suspicious parents or the unforgiving religious police.

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