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22. February 2010

From Lingerie to Business Deals

Saudi Women Rebel

Reproduced courtesy of Francesca Caferri
La Repubblica, 16 Feb. 2010

RIYADH—In the offices of the financial group Al Dukheil the only man who isn’t listening to Khlood Al Dukheil is Abdul Karim, an older man in charge of preparing tea and coffee. “He has seen me playing here,” she says, “And he will always treat me like a little girl.” Abdul Karim is a special case here: the rest of the employees listen and follow orders when Khlood speaks. Even though her office is in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative countries in the world, a woman at the head of a company is a rarity. Here, women are forbidden to show themselves in public without an abaya (the long black robe that covers her from head to toe) and veil, to sit with a man who is not a member of her family, and to drive. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world to prohibit women from driving. “When I came back from the United States,” explains Al Dukheil, “Managers like me were few and far between—but not anymore.”

Khlood is the avant-garde of a constantly-growing group: that of Saudi women who are breaking into the private sector, challenging the rules that have relegated them to the margins of society for years. The movement is diverse and wide-ranging: from business women like her, to students of the first coeducational university, to women who are boycotting shopping to protest the fact that women can’t work in lingerie stores. Clients must discuss their bras and underwear with male shopkeepers. “It’s a provocation, a taunt,” explains Reem Asaad, Professor of Economics and the organizer of the protest. “And there’s much more: we are claiming a new role in society, demanding more rights. We are tired of waiting. Things move slowly, but we are impatient.”

And yet, since the beginning of King Abdullah’s reign in 2005, things have been changing for Saudi women like never before: the king has opened government offices, allowing access to jobs that were until lately unthinkable, and granting scholarships to a growing number of female students to study overseas. A year ago, Nuor al Faiz became the first woman vice-minister, and seven women were chosen as councilors in the Shura, the advisory body to the King.

Small revolutions in a very conservative country: however, for many, these changes are not enough. “Things are not different from 30-40 years ago,” says Wajeha al Huwaidar, a well-known activist in the Kingdom. “The women at the top are there because their husbands or fathers allowed them to be there. The law hasn’t changed: we still need permission from our fathers or our husbands to work or to leave the country. And there are still so many obstacles.” Khlood agrees: of her 300 employees, only three are women. It’s difficult to employ more until social norms change: “Today, every female employee has to work in a separate office from the men. They need drivers to bring them to work. And you could lose them in an instant if the husband or the father takes back his permission. You can’t race with a broken car: the car must be fixed first.”

These changes require time, says Banadar Al Aiban, President of the Human Rights Commission, the king’s appointee to that post. “The changes can’t be traumatic. Progress must be gradual: this is the only way to avoid tensions.” Al Aiban doesn’t say it specifically, but when he speaks of “tensions” he is referring to the state-sponsored Wahhabi religion. It is upon the alliance with the religious conservatives that the Saud Dynasty has established the foundations of its power. This is a link from which it cannot extract itself and that some of the overtures of King Abdullah are putting to the test. “Allah didn’t want to overwhelm women with too many roles,” explains one of the most prominent Wahhabi spokesmen, Sheik Abdulaziz Bin Saleh al-Fawzan, when asked about his position regarding women’s rights. “In Islam, men and women don’t compete, they complete each other: the wife is charged with taking care of the household, and the husband with providing for her.”

That’s a vision that seems at odds with today’s world: “It’s no longer an issue of being bored or being able to afford luxuries,” explains Hala al-Hoshan of Al Nahda, the oldest NGO in the country. “It’s that the economy requires women to change their role: families can no longer survive on only one income.” At Al Nahda, the top priority today is career training for young adults: they offer telemarketing training courses and programs for becoming an IT professional to offer technical support to people with computer problems. These programs received additional funding from the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation. “Change is happening; it’s just slower than what we would like,” says Al-Hoshan. Dr. Maha al-Munefaa, physician and advisor to the Shura, is also convinced. “There are two forces in action: one that works from above and one that works from below. The one that works from above is the King. The one that works from below are the women who are studying, the Internet, and satellite television.” Maha is already a pioneer in her field: in the hospital, she works side by side with men and women, a situation that would be unthinkable in other places. She also walks through the streets around the hospital without an abaya, protected only by her white labcoat. This is a freedom that increasingly more women, according to newspapers, want to taste—to the point of pretending to be nurses in order to do so.


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