by: Katherine Zoeff
JIDDA — Roughly two years ago, Rowdha Yousef began to notice a disturbing trend: Saudi women like herself were beginning to organize campaigns for greater personal freedoms. Suddenly, there were women asking for the right to drive, to choose whether to wear a veil, and to take a job without a male relative’s permission, all using the Internet to collect signatures and organize meetings and all becoming, she felt, more voluble by the month.
The final straw came last summer, when she read reports that a female activist in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, Wajeha al-Huwaider, had been to the border with Bahrain, demanding to cross using only her passport, without a male chaperon or a male guardian’s written permission.
Ms. Huwaider was not allowed to leave the country unaccompanied and, like other Saudi women campaigning for new rights, has failed — so far — to change any existing laws or customs.
But Ms. Yousef is still outraged, and since August has taken on activists at their own game. With 15 other women, she started a campaign, “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me.” Within two months, they had collected more than 5,400 signatures on a petition “rejecting the ignorant requests of those inciting liberty” and demanding “punishments for those who call for equality between men and women, mingling between men and women in mixed environments, and other unacceptable behaviors.”
Ms. Yousef’s fight against the would-be liberalizers symbolizes a larger tussle in Saudi society over women’s rights that has suddenly made the female factor a major issue for reformers and conservatives striving to shape Saudi Arabia’s future.
Public separation of the sexes is a strongly distinctive feature of Saudi Arabia, making it perhaps a logical area for fierce debate. Since women have such a limited role in Saudi public life, however, it is somewhat surprising that it is their rights that have become a matter of open contention in a society that keeps most debate hidden.
Surprising, too, are the complexities turned up by the debate, which go far beyond what some Saudis see as the simplistic Western argument that women are simply entitled to more rights.
Take Ms. Yousef. She is a 39-year-old divorced mother of three (aged 13, 12 and 9) who volunteers as a mediator in domestic abuse cases. A tall, confident woman with a warm, effusive manner and sparkling stiletto-heeled sandals, her conversation, over Starbucks lattes, ranges from racism in the kingdom (Ms. Yousef has Somali heritage and calls herself a black Saudi) to her admiration for Hillary Rodham Clinton to the abuse she says she has suffered at the hands of Saudi liberals.
She believes firmly that most Saudis share her conservative values but insists that adherence to Shariah law and family custom need not restrict a woman seeking a say. Female campaigners in the reform camp, she says, are influenced by Westerners who do not understand the needs and beliefs of Saudi women.
“These human rights groups come, and they only listen to one side, those who are demanding liberty for women,” she said.
Every Saudi woman, regardless of age or status, must have a male relative who acts as her guardian and has responsibility for and authority over her in a host of legal and personal matters.
Ms. Yousef, whose guardian is her elder brother, said that she enjoyed a great deal of freedom while respecting the rules of her society. Guardian rules are such that she could start her campaign, for instance, without seeking her guardian’s permission.
She did not wish to speak in detail about her divorce but noted that, unusually, she had retained custody of her children through their 18th birthdays. She said she had founded her guardianship campaign unassisted, without any special connections, enlisting women in her circle of contacts as fellow founding members.
Activists like Ms. Huwaider, Ms. Yousef believes, are susceptible to foreign influences because of personal problems with men. “If she is suffering because of her guardian, she can go to a Shariah court that could remove the responsibility for her from that man and transfer it to someone who is more trustworthy.”
To an outsider, Ms. Yousef’s effort — petitioning King Abdullah to disregard calls for gender equality — might seem superfluous. After all, Saudi women still may not drive or vote and are obliged by custom to wear the floor-length cloaks known as abayas, and headscarves, outside their own homes.
Women may not appear in court, and though they may be divorced via brief verbal declarations from their husbands, they frequently find it very difficult to obtain divorce themselves. Fathers may marry off 10-year-old daughters, a practice defended by the highest religious authority, Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh.
The separation of genders in Saudi public life is difficult to overstate — there are women-only stores, women-only lines in fast food restaurants, and women-only offices in private companies. Members of the hai’a, the governmental Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, patrol to ensure that ikhtilat, or “mixing” of the sexes, does not occur.
There are a few places where men and women do work together — medical colleges, some hospitals, a handful of banks and private companies. But the percentage of Saudis in such environments is minuscule.
Jidda and Riyadh host stand-up comedy shows where young people do mix — albeit summoned with only hours’ notice via cellphone in an attempt to dodge policing. At the popular Janadriyah cultural festival in Riyadh, families were allowed to visit together for the first time last year, instead of on separate men’s and women’s days.
Where conservatives like Ms. Yousef attribute the recent volubility of rights campaigners to Western meddling, liberals say that Saudi society itself is changing, and that increasing freedoms for Saudi women appear to be cautiously supported by King Abdullah himself.
Both sides of the debate tend to claim the king’s backing. Recent history suggests that the sympathies of the 85-year-old monarch — whose feelings are never explicitly outlined in public — lie with the reformers. If so, he seems out in front of most of his youthful subjects (an estimated two-thirds of the 29 million Saudis are under 25).
The king has appeared in newspaper photographs alongside Saudi women with uncovered faces, a situation that was unimaginable until very recently. Last year, he appointed a woman to deputy minister rank, a first for Saudi Arabia. Schools and colleges remain rigidly segregated by gender, but the opening last September of a coeducational post-graduate research university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, was hotly debated, even if only about 15 percent of the nearly 400 students at Kaust, as it is known, are Saudi.
A senior cleric was fired last October after criticizing gender mixing at Kaust on a television call-in show. Two months later, Sheikh Ahmad al-Ghamdi, the head of Mecca’s branch of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, caused a sensation when he told The Okaz, a newspaper, that gender mixing was “part of normal life.” In February, Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak, another prominent cleric, issued a fatwa that proponents of gender mixing should be killed.
Whether it is the king’s support, or simply the ever greater availability of digital social networks, campaigning is mushrooming on both sides of the women’s rights divide, although Ms. Yousef’s is so far thought to be the only conservative effort led by a woman.
Hatoon al-Fassi, an assistant professor of women’s history at King Saud University in Riyadh, called 2009 “the year of the campaigns” for women in Saudi Arabia. Female Saudi activists embraced causes as diverse as an effort to ban child marriage and the right to set up businesses without male sponsors.
Reem Asaad lectures in the finance department at Dar al-Hekma College in Jidda. She organized a nationwide boycott of lingerie shops that employ only men, choosing lingerie because even Saudi conservatives can agree that it may be humiliating for a woman to buy underwear from a male clerk.
Her ultimate aim is to broaden women’s job opportunities. Outside her university office, where her all-female students wait for meetings with their teacher, hangs a photocopy of the country page for Saudi Arabia from the Global Gender Gap Report for 2009 by the World Economic Forum. In “economic participation and opportunity” for women, the kingdom ranks 133 out of 134 listed countries, above only Yemen. “Many Saudis would rather see a woman in poverty than have her work,” Ms. Asaad said. “This is about opening doors for women in different sectors of the economy.”
Ms. Huwaider, who so incensed Ms. Yousef with her attempts to cross into Bahrain, is a veteran campaigner, famously seen driving illegally in a YouTube clip in 2008. Now she distributes small lengths of black elastic to Saudi women, asking them to wear the ribbons until Saudi laws treat them as adults.
Soon, she said in an interview, she plans a campaign for the Saudi government to put in place a law requiring men who wish to take a second wife to obtain permission from the first wife. Morocco has such a law, which Ms. Huwaider believes could serve as a useful model.
Ms. Huwaider emphatically rejects Ms. Yousef’s characterization that she attacks the guardianship system because of personal problems. Her male guardian, she said, is her ex-husband, and they have excellent relations.
She did agree, notionally, with Ms. Yousef’s claim that many if not most Saudi men try to be fair and caring guardians. “Saudi men pride themselves on their chivalry,” Ms. Huwaider said, “but it’s the same kind of feeling they have for handicapped people or for animals. The kindness comes from pity, from lack of respect.”
Ms. Huwaider lives at what she said was considerable expense — the equivalent of $16,000 a year — in the guarded compound of the Saudi Aramco oil company. She is an employee of Aramco, working in a department that runs further education and employee development, and took the rare step, for a Saudi, of moving into the compound in 2007, after her campaign for the right to drive provoked several death threats. Sometimes, she conceded, it is frightening. But she has grown so accustomed to it that “sometimes I think to myself, ‘Oh, I didn’t get any threats today.”’
Over tea and curried snack mix at her home in Riyadh, Ms. Fassi pronounced herself “very optimistic” about the women’s campaigns for more freedom. They break the censure on expression, and the list of topics that Saudi writers may address without being censored has also expanded very rapidly, Ms. Fassi said.
“The media is not that free, still, but it is much better than it was a few years ago. Nowadays we talk openly about minors’ marriages, about rape and incest, about cases brought against the religious police.”
And, of course, the activism produces backlash. “This campaign of Rowdha Yousef’s is a reaction,” she said — unaware that Ms. Yousef, when contacted by this reporter, expressed surprise that a journalist had come from New York to meet her. Ms. Yousef said more than 30 articles discussing her campaign had appeared in the Saudi press, but no Saudi reporter was willing to meet her, and coverage was mainly what she called mocking opinion columns.
Ahmad al-Omran, a pharmacist who blogs under the name Saudi Jeans, points out that, in the absence of opinion polling or free elections, it is hard to measure the popularity or representative nature of women’s campaigns. None have produced even an official response from the Saudi leadership.
“What do they achieve?” Mr. Omran asked. “Changing laws comes from higher up, not lower down.”
Even the most optimistic say that change will be slow. Ms. Fassi explained that even the hint of breaking the taboo on gender mixing had been traumatic for many Saudis. “People had lived their whole lives doing one thing and believing one thing, and suddenly the king and the major clerics were saying that mixing was O.K.,” Ms. Fassi said.
The extent of this trauma may be difficult for outsiders to understand, Ms. Fassi said. “You can’t begin to imagine the impact that the ban on mixing has on our lives and what lifting this ban would mean.”
Noura Abdulrahman, an Education Ministry employee who recently founded an after-school Islamic studies program aimed at teenage girls in Riyadh, said she tries to be generous toward the “liberaliyeen” — Saudi conservatives give the English word an Arabic plural and frequently employ it as a term of disparagement.
“The liberals’ motives might be good — they might want to make Saudi Arabia competitive with Western societies — but they’re failing to understand the uniqueness of Saudi society,” Ms. Abdulrahman said. “In Saudi culture, women have their integrity and a special life that is separate from men. As a Saudi woman, I demand to have a guardian. My work requires me to go to different regions of Saudi Arabia, and during my business trips I always bring my husband or my brother. They ask nothing in return — they only want to be with me.”
While Ms. Abdulrahman was discussing guardianship with a visitor, a neighbor, Umm Muhammad, dropped in for a morning tea. She proudly volunteered that her own guardian, her husband, was out of town but they were in constant touch by phone. In fact, she had just called him for permission to visit Ms. Abdulrahman.
“The image in the West is that we are dominated by men, but they always forget the aspect of love,” she said. “People who aren’t familiar with Shariah often have the wrong idea. If you want stability and safety in your life, if you want a husband who takes care of you, you won’t find it except in Islam.”
Eman Fahad is a 31-year-old linguistics graduate student and mother of three. In her blog, she called Ms. Yousef’s campaign an effort to “stand against women who are demanding to be treated as adults.”
Even if most Saudi men are caring guardians, Ms. Fahad said, until women have full adult rights under the law, there will be abuses. She said she resented conservatives’ portrayal of Saudi women’s rights activists as spoiled and frivolous. She spoke of women she had met who had been forced to quit work they loved because their guardianship had been transferred to a new, less understanding man, and of women with no legal recourse when estranged husbands snatched their children away.
“These are the women they are fighting for,” Ms. Fahad said of the campaigners. “They’re not campaigning because they really want to be allowed to go crazy in some nightclub.”
Yet Ms. Fahad conceded that most Saudi women cleave to tradition. “If you actually talk to ordinary people,” including in her circle, she said, “you’ll find that most people want things to stay the same.”