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Dhahran women push the veil aside

| Thursday, May 3, 2012, 7:37 p.m.

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- Wajeha Al-Huwaider sips cappuccino in a cafe at the Saudi Aramco complex, home to the world's largest oil corporation.

Beyond the security checkpoints, the complex's ranch-style houses and SUVs parked in driveways beside basketball hoops resemble a Texas suburb.

On wide streets named for Arthur Miller, John Steinbeck and other American authors, women stroll without the long black robe and veil known as the abaya and hijab.

Outside the complex, most women are swathed in black, if seen at all.

Al-Huwaider's loose-fitting dark-purple scarf slips off her short brown hair. An education analyst at Aramco by day, at night she slips over the 16-mile King Fahd Causeway to neighboring Bahrain so she can feel as if she is "sleeping free, that there won't be a knock at my door and they will say, 'You are arrested.' "

The single mother of two rails against a system she says treats women as emotionally and intellectually handicapped.

"If I wanted to get married, I would have to get the permission of my son," she says.

She is 45; her son, 17.

Saudi women like her are pushing back their confinement -- entering schools, getting jobs, starting businesses, speaking out.

Yet laws and social norms make it extremely difficult. Women still require a mehram -- a male guardian's permission -- to travel, rent an apartment or attend college, to list a few of the restrictions.

In August, Al-Huwaider held a one-woman demonstration, walking on the Saudi side of the causeway with a placard proclaiming, "Give Women Their Rights!"

She was arrested within 20 minutes.

Detained for seven hours, she had to wait for a mutawa -- a religious police officer from the state Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Then she had to answer in writing why she protested and who was behind it. She was freed only after a male guardian signed for her.

'Treated as subordinates'

Westerners often focus on women being forbidden to drive here. It's a nuisance, Saudi women say, but hardly their first priority for reform.

"The main challenge we face is ... women are always treated as subordinates, not as full human beings ... who can take care of themselves," says Maha Akeel, managing editor of the Journal of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Akeel, the first female magazine editor in this conservative kingdom, also writes for the English-language Arab News daily. Slender, dark-eyed, quick to smile, she is a Saudi diplomat's daughter. Wearing a black robe and gold veil in her office in the coastal city of Jeddah, she lists what women are forbidden to do without guardian approval.

She and others point to active women in Islamic history; one wife of the prophet Muhammad led a famous battle, while another was a businesswoman.

"Look, we are not asking for ... women's rights according to Western values or lifestyles," she says. "We want things according to what Islam says. Look at our history, our role models."

Not all Saudi women agree, however.

In the gritty town of Khamis Mushayt in the mountainous province of Asir, Dhafir Al Hamsan runs a traditional village, complete with stone towers rebuilt in the region's ancient style.

He shepherds tourists through the village, displaying pictures of provincial women dressed in traditional hats and yellow veils.

"Thirty years ago, they didn't cover the face," he says of local women. "Now they are like this sister here."

He points to a woman dressed like most Saudi women: long black robe, black headscarf, face veil, a separate black scarf to cover the eyes.

The woman is Sumiya Malik, a Jeddah housewife who says she feels shy uncovered.

Women have many rights in Saudi Arabia, she says. Her sister works, and she chose to marry her husband, a British convert to Islam.

"I feel the lady is like a diamond," she says. "She is expensive, and she should cover herself."

'More dynamic than men'

In Jeddah, the restrictions seem a bit relaxed.

Some women there refuse to wear veils. Clothing designers are reinventing the required long black robe in slimmer, form-fitting styles with colorful embroidery or sequins on the sleeves, hem and back. A shop sells designer abayas -- one with a sequined kitten in a cowboy hat playing a guitar, another with leopard-print sleeves and hood.

"Just because they are all veiled-up ... doesn't mean that under the veil they are any less dynamic," says Robert Lacy, author of the book "The Kingdom," who is researching a follow-up. He thinks "the future lies with Saudi women. They are much more dynamic than Saudi men," because having to "push against adversity gives them an edge."

Many women here took hope when a more moderate King Abdullah assumed the throne in 2005. He recently took a women's delegation to China; his foreign ministry is trying to recruit more female diplomats.

The government Human Rights Commission has opened an office for women's and family issues. Its chairman, Turki Al Sudairy, insists change will come -- but slowly. He remembers public protests in the 1960s when the government opened girls' schools.

'Very, very limited' change

Saudi women have made greater strides in journalism, particularly in print media. At the Arab News office, men and women work in separate rooms, "but the door between them is always open," says Akeel.

Ebtihal Mubarak, 28, a reporter for two years, wrote about Fatimah Al Taimani, forcibly divorced from her husband after her half brothers accused him of lying about his tribal affiliations. Unable to be with her husband yet unwilling to return to her own family, she spent nine months in prison before being released to a women's shelter.

Mubarak's reporting was picked up by the English and Arabic press, including the Arabic satellite channel Al Arabiya, provoking a debate in Saudi society.

"Although the case didn't turn out how we would have liked ... it's important because, as a woman, I realize it could happen to any woman at any time," Mubarak says.

For Mubarak, change is happening much too slowly.

"People say things are changing for women because they are comparing it to before, when things were below zero," Sumayya Jabarti, Arab News' executive editor, says as Mubarak nods in agreement. "People say 'change,' but it is all relative and it is very, very limited.

"Change is not coming, we are taking it. ... I don't think the way is paved. I think we are building it through the route taken. ...Most of the time, we are walking in place."

Jabarti blames men for the situation, but blames women even more for what she terms "the Queen Bee syndrome" -- women "in decision-making positions (who) haven't done much for their own gender."

Akeel says many women fear the unknown and the risks.

"They say, 'Why do you want to change things• Maybe you will open the gates of hell on us,' " she says.

"Of course ... this is a male-centered society, and they are not going to let go of their control easily. They never do. You have to fight for it."

Lesson learned in America

Al Huwaider, the Aramco employee, is banned from writing for Saudi publications, so she writes online. The authorities have threatened to take away her job if she continues.

Defiant, she plans to hold a hunger strike in August.

She says she started her activism at home, "to prove to my parents that I am no less than my brothers. ... I guess any Saudi woman is an (activist) on a daily basis, defending her existence as a person."

Yet it was a brief period of living in the United States that most affected her, she says.

"Before that, I knew that I'm a human being. However, in the United States I felt it, because I was treated as one," she says. "I learned life means nothing without freedom.

"Then I decided to become a real women's rights activist, in order to free women in my country and to make them feel alive."

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