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Feature

Beyond the veil

Natasha Walter
Guardian Weekly


At al-Mamlaka shopping mall in Riyadh, women are arriving after the prayer break. Chauffeur-driven cars are drawing up and black-robed figures without faces step out, the only splashes of colour the bags on their arms Louis Vuitton's pastel logos, Gucci's red and green stripes and the heeled sandals showing under the hems of their dark wraps. At the entrance a sign in Arabic and English states, "Ladies only. No cameras allowed. Please remove your face cover."

This is the mall where Saudi women can shop without fear of a man's glance, and they wander around La Senza or Giorgio Armani, chatting into their cellphones, or drink mango juice in the Super Model Cafe. "The Corrs, I love the Corrs," says my companion, Iman al-Kahtani, as the music springs on. Iman is not a typical Saudi woman: at 24, her outspoken journalism, especially on women's rights, has gained her fame. "In our interpretation of Islam, women have no identity," she wrote angrily in an article for the electronic newspaper Elaph. According to Sulaiman al-Hattlan, a columnist for al-Watan newspaper, "If there were five Imans in the kingdom, then we would see some changes."

With Iman's fame has come a furious reaction. "People tell me that I am an infidel they say I am a shame to my tribe," she says coldly. Only occasionally does Iman laugh a deep, reluctant laugh, and her young face is heavy with a weight of experience. Her politics are the product of pure rage. "Young girls here are so oppressed," she says. "They receive this education that means you never think about your rights. But I couldn't accept it. I was always angry about it."

Most Saudi women are in effect voiceless. That was confirmed with the exclusion of women from the limited elections that began last week. Saudi Arabia embodies the most traditional interpretation of Islam in the world; the kingdom was created by the 18th-century alliance of the puritan reformer Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahhab and the house of the Al Sauds. Wahhabi Islam, which has spread from Saudi Arabia to other parts of the Middle East and central Asia, especially Afghanistan, has become a melding of religious and tribal law that frowns upon any activity that entails women mixing with men. Since the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, there is no place in the world where women are more systematically deprived of freedom than in Saudi Arabia.

In the West we know that Saudi women must wear the abaya, a black cloak, outside their homes, and that they are not allowed to drive. What is harder to understand is the extreme segregation of the sexes. As a female outsider, you are quickly made aware that you must keep to the rules. If you go to a restaurant, even to a western one such as Starbucks or McDonald's, you will find doors marked "singles" (exclusively for men) and "families". If you are a Saudi woman, this segregation is an inescapable part of your entire life: you are constantly confined to women-only spaces. If you are a female student at the university, you will see your male professor only by video link or two-way mirror; if you go to work, you will almost certainly find yourself confined to a separate women's section. Saudi women speak of other Gulf states of Oman, where women can vote, or of Kuwait, where women can drive as examples of the freedom that their society might work towards.

What underlies this segregation is a thoroughgoing deprivation of women's legal rights: every Saudi woman has a male guardian her husband, her father, even her brother or her son. In relation to him, she never stops being a child, and he must give permission before she can be educated, get an ID card, travel or even go to hospital. This system that gives individual men such rights over individual women enables the sort of social control that seeps everywhere, right into the minds of men and women. Iman tells me that once she was waiting at an airport when a woman started to yell at her for being immoral; her crime was to be standing in a public place without a male escort.

It's a social order that has raised little protest in the wider world. In December 2001, George Bush devoted a speech to the treatment of women in Afghanistan treatment that was supposedly a driving force behind the war. "Women now come out of their homes from house arrest, able to walk the streets without chaperones," he boasted. "The central goal of the terrorists is the brutal oppression of women and not only the women of Afghanistan." But clearly it is only the women of Afghanistan who gave him pause for thought. Neither Bush nor Tony Blair for whom Saudi Arabia is both a prime ally in the "war on terror" and a prime supplier of oil has ever publicly objected to the severe restrictions placed on women in the kingdom.

Although Iman al-Kahtani is unusual, she is evidence of a wider shift of opinion within the kingdom. Over the past 12 months a growing minority of Saudi women have spoken in favour of greater freedom. In the media, articles have appeared about everything from divorce law to education reform. When broadcaster Rania al-Baz allowed her face to be photographed after her husband battered her in a vicious attack, she brought to national debate the previously hidden issue of domestic violence. "There is more transparency at the moment," says Iman. "We have to take advantage of that. The moment may not come again."

It is success in business and media that has given well-educated and well-connected Saudi women public confidence; as one speaks up, it emboldens another. Last year Saudi Arabia's leading businesswoman, Lubna Olayan, addressed a mixed audience at an economic forum with her face uncovered, saying that her vision for her country was one in which "any Saudi citizen, irrespective of gender" could do any job. This was explosive stuff in a country in which women face so many restrictions at work. While the highest religious authority in the kingdom denounced her speech, she was supported by other businesswomen. "We have made history. Thank you, Lubna," said Nahed Taher, a well-known economist, from the platform at the same event.

After September 11, 2001, the Saudi government, the royal family, did seem to shift position a little. The embarrassment of having nurtured the world's most egregious terrorists (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens) and the fact that terrorists started to attack domestic targets in 2003 meant the royal family was made sufficiently uneasy to talk about reforming the political process. A few hopeful-looking decisions were taken a human rights commission was set up, and the first elections (aside from some limited local polls held in the 1960s) were announced to elect half of the municipal councils.

But the explosion of debate and the few minor reforms have not been matched by any real progress towards democratic rights for women or men. The reform movement has been dealt blow after blow. Three leading male liberal reformers were imprisoned last year, and government employees have recently been prohibited from signing petitions just about the only form of collective political action available in a state where public protest and political parties are banned. In October the government announced that women would not be allowed to vote in the local elections, shocking women who had believed that the royal family was going to support progress towards greater freedom. When I was in Riyadh, registration had started for the elections, and the news came out that prisoners would be able to vote while women would not. "I am depressed," says Iman. This is a word I keep hearing.

Six women actually came forward to stand as candidates in the city council elections. The first of these was Nadia Bakhurji, who has run her own interior design business for more than 10 years. At her house in Riyadh, I find a talkative 37-year-old, elegantly dressed, her hair in a chignon. "I was always very ambitious to do something important with my life," she says. When she graduated from King Faisal University in 1989, she was one of the first women in Saudi Arabia to have a degree in design and interior architecture. But no companies would take on women. So she started her own business at home, building work through her father's business contacts with international companies her first client was the telecommunications company AT&T until she had forged one of the leading design firms in the kingdom.

Even so, Nadia could not have stepped into the political arena if she had been all alone. "When the decree came out setting a date for the elections, it left it open to debate whether women could vote or run for office. It was Hatoon who said, 'Nadia, you should do this'." Hatoon is Hatoon al-Fassi, a historian and outstanding campaigner on women's rights whom Nadia has known for 15 years.

Then came the news that women would not even be able to vote, let alone run for office. But Nadia and her fellow campaigners have not given up. Hatoon, in another time and place, would openly be the leader of a suffragette movement, but here she is working rather more quietly. "It is illegal to set up political organisations," she reminds me when I ask whether her network is formalised. "I have a cultural salon." This "cultural salon" numbers more than 100 active female members and is in contact with similar "salons" all over the kingdom.

Hatoon did not put herself forward as a candidate, and when I meet her it is clear why: she is heavily pregnant. Her husband, a quietly urbane man in his long, white robe, warns her not to talk too much, and brings tea and dates, and fetches a footstool for her to rest her feet. "I couldn't stand as a candidate myself this time," says Hatoon, "so I did everything else I could. I was the . . ."

"She was the kingmaker," says her husband.

Hatoon first became interested in women's rights in 1990, the year 47 Saudi women drove cars in a protest against the ban on their driving. "This was a turning point for me," she says. "I didn't take part in the protest, but I saw the aftermath. Our society revealed something horrible in itself in its reaction to what these women did. They were all dismissed from their jobs and harassed. Their husbands, their children, their parents were threatened. Their names were read out in mosques, they were put on cassettes and flyers, people were told to do everything they could it was an open invitation to kill them."

Since then, Hatoon has campaigned through journalism and network-building. She and her friends were never even given an audience with Prince Mansour, the head of the election committee, although they telephoned his office every day for two months. I am luckier: as a western journalist, I manage to meet him after a couple of days in the country.

I sit next to the prince and we exchange pleasantries as his servant brings cardamom-scented coffee. "I am fully engaged with women," he says, smiling. "I have two daughters, and one has a degree in computer science. I have taught Saudi women at BA and masters level. I have supervised the dissertations of two ladies." I know that he is a professor at the university, but am surprised that he himself teaches women. "I talk to them by telephone," he explains.

Even though Prince Mansour is "fully engaged" with women, he emphasises to me without a hint of regret that, because of logistical problems, they will not be able to vote in these elections. "We do not say that women should not vote. We say that this time, because of the constraints of time, we cannot set up the system for them to vote." The problem is that, due to the enforced segregation of women, he would need to set up separate polling booths, separate registration offices two parallel systems, in effect. Off the record, woman after woman tells me she believes that the government's argument about logistics is just an excuse; in fact it is scared of inflaming the opposition of the religious leaders. Despite this setback, women are still trying to draw strength from the fact that they have not been banned on principle from voting. It is now being said by some government officials that women will be allowed to vote in the 2009 polls.

If radical change does come, observers assume that it will be propelled by women such as these. But of course they are only a minority. Their gloss and confidence seems almost surreal when contrasted with the invisibility of women in Saudi life as a whole. And however impressive this elite may be, some still seem infantilised by their experience of being dependent on the whims of men throughout their lives.

So I meet many women who tell me that freedom scares them. "I like being looked after," says one woman. "I look at you women in the West and I think how hard it must be not to have anyone to look after you." I can see that for Saudi women who have high incomes, the chance to holiday in the West, the money for a reliable driver and, above all, supportive male relatives the sine qua non of any tolerable life for a woman here there is no urgent need for revolution. The gilded cage is very glittery indeed, and many women are content to ignore the fact that they do not have the right to step out of it.

This passivity is exacerbated by unquantifiable fear. It is outside Saudi Arabia that I first catch a sense of the chilling effect that fear has on the growth of dissent. Before I leave for the kingdom, I meet a small group of young Saudi women in London whose husbands are in the UK for business or studies. One of them let's call her Samar an energetic young woman, speaks far more frankly than the others about her hatred of the abaya, of the driving ban, of the religious police. When she hears that I am a journalist, she blanches.

"I am afraid," she says candidly. "I shouldn't have said what I said. I have children. They could hurt them. They could hurt my family back home. Please, please forget everything I said." It is not the government that scares her, but the religious extremists.

When a more straightforward kind of communication develops, it is often in unexpected places. In Riyadh I visit the first women's factories in Saudi Arabia. These have been set up with the assistance of the al-Nahda Foundation, the oldest women's charity in the country, and although the wages are very low, the factories are receiving many more applications than there are jobs from women who are desperate to work. Saudi Arabia is no longer hugely wealthy, and women's incomes are more and more necessary to keep families going.

The best factory for women in Riyadh is the Saudi Lighting Company, where a remarkable female supervisor has improved the conditions for women and has created a great atmosphere. "We are one family," she tells me. She is a woman who laughs in every sentence and dresses carelessly with short hair and trousers, unusual in a society in which most women go for an exaggeratedly feminine style of dress.

However much I might deplore the segregation of Saudi society, it was solely in women-only areas that I felt relaxed. As soon as women enter wider society most are transformed into faceless and silent figures. Veiling here is literal veiling about half the women you see in Riyadh pull their black scarves right over their faces, not even exposing their eyes. This covering is not just about choice it is enforced, sometimes brutally, by the religious police.

Despite the intense social control, conflict is beginning, since a new generation is looking for more freedom, and some are seizing it. Through mobile phones and email, they can contact one another and they are constantly exposed to another way of life through satellite television and the internet. If the movement for rights for women is to succeed in the long term, however, it will probably not involve thoroughgoing westernisation. The anger created by the occupation of Palestine by Israel and of Iraq by America has made it impossible for Arabs to look to the West as a moral touchstone. But this does not mean an end to the pursuit of women's rights. Progressive women in Saudi Arabia continually refer to the Qur'an to argue that in the deepest traditions of Islam, women could participate politically, could have a voice in society.

Listening to the voices of the bravest women who are asking for changes in their status, I swung between horror at the obstacles they face and immense admiration for their tenacity. "Rights are not given," Hatoon al-Fassi told me, "they are taken. If our demands are legitimate, as I believe they are, then one day we will get these rights."






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