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Saudi women heard but not seen during forum on their status

Thursday, June 17, 2004

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- One woman criticized rules that keep Saudi women from teaching boys. Another said working women should be allowed to do more than teach. Still others called for more rights for divorced women.

Saudi women were allowed to be heard -- but not seen -- at a three-day forum this week on their status in this conservative Islamic kingdom.

The King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue invited 70 prominent Saudis, half of them women, to the holy city of Medina to discuss the role of women.

Men sat in one room, women in another. They shared their views through video conferencing, although the men faced a blank screen in deference to bans on women showing their faces in public.

The forum was covered by state television and by the private Saudi-owned station Al-Arabiya, which focused its cameras on the men as it aired the voices of the women.

The forum ended Tuesday with vague calls for women to be given more opportunities to work and to participate in public life, and a pointed reminder that their role as wives and mothers was "an essential job."

Still, it was "a good first step," said Nawal al-Rashid, who recently was elected head of the new national press union in Saudi Arabia.

"The importance of the discussions is that they highlighted women's issues and made them part of the public debate," al-Rashid told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

It was the second in what has been envisioned as a series of dialogues on national affairs as Saudi Arabia faces pressure to reform in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States. Fifteen of the 19 Muslim suicide hijackers were Saudi, prompting questions about whether the conservative form of Islam practiced in the kingdom feeds extremism.

Fanaticism was the theme of the first forum, held in December in Mecca, home of Islam's holiest shrines. At that meeting, 60 participants, including 10 women, drew up recommendations for more public participation in politics, greater women's rights and freedom of the press.

The complaints aired this week ranged from criticism of rules that keep Saudi women from teaching boys to calls for more rights for divorced women.

University professor Fatima al-Harbi called for opening up work opportunities for women beyond teaching. Most Saudi women who work are involved in education.

"We are living in a modern world but we are far behind," she said.

Amal al-Shaman, another professor at a women's university, said it was discriminatory not to allow women to teach male students or hold posts other than on female campuses.

Participants also criticized Saudi laws banning women from traveling without a male relative as a chaperone.

On the streets of Riyadh on Wednesday, one resident indicated the communique was headed in the wrong direction.

"The people will resist having satanic values imposed on them," Abdul Rahman said. "How can we let our women drive or lift their veils or mix with men? What is next? Shall we see them one day sitting in a cafe and drinking tea together?"

Others called for laws to be amended so that divorced women don't have to seek their former husbands' permission to, for example, register their child in school.

From the conservative camp, Mohammed al-Arifi, a theologian, ridiculed calls for women to be allowed to drive or appear in public without "covering their heads properly."

At least one man spoke out for women. Writer Yeha al-Amir brandished a copy of a high school textbook that he said included a passage describing women as "weak creatures. If they are left alone without guidance they will be corrupt and corrupt others."

"How can we teach our children that women are a source of corruption?" al-Amir demanded.

Abeer Mishkhas, writing in the Saudi newspaper the Arab News, said the meeting showed the need for more such forums.

"Our society needs to learn to open up to other views and approaches without denouncing them outright and labeling them as unacceptable," she wrote.

The government has indicated it wants change for women, recently approving a plan to create jobs for women and address some of their most critical grievances.

Under the plan, the Labor Ministry has been given a year to develop a blueprint for a female work force. The plan also says only women will be able to work in shops catering to women, like lingerie and makeup stores.

The Medina forum ended with an attempt to strike a balance between tradition and desire for change. Its final statement stressed "the importance of the woman's role in the family as an essential job," but added that Islam guarantees the right to work. It called for more women's universities, providing jobs for women and a greater role for women in public affairs.

On the streets of Riyadh on Wednesday, one resident indicated the communique was headed in the wrong direction.

"The people will resist having satanic values imposed on them," Abdul Rahman said. "How can we let our women drive or lift their veils or mix with men? What is next? Shall we see them one day sitting in a cafe and drinking tea together?"


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