Saudi's Small Steps

Women are steadily winning rights and greater freedom. A look behind the veil of a society

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Kate Brooks for TIME

At media company Rotana, female employees like Reem Abdul Aziz Abunaja, praying by her desk, work alongside male colleagues.

Like those of its competitors in New York or London, the sleek glass and steel offices of media company Rotana are filled with preening attitude and fashion-conscious staffers: assistants teeter in shoes that might have absorbed much of their monthly paycheck; executives parade the halls in power suits and pencil skirts. But Rotana isn't in New York or London; it's in Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia, a country in which women normally adhere to a strict dress code in public — a black cloak called an abaya, a headscarf and a veil, the niqab, which covers everything but their eyes.

There's another reason many Saudis would find Rotana shocking: men and women working side by side. The sight unnerves enough men who come looking for a job that human-resources manager Sultana al-Rowaili has developed a trick to see if a male applicant can handle working in a mixed-gender office. She arranges for a female colleague to interrupt the initial interview, and watches to see if the man loses concentration or stares too much. Sometimes even that isn't necessary. Many men are undone by the very idea of being interviewed by a woman. "They are in a state of shock to see a woman in a position of authority and to have to ask her for a job," al-Rowaili says.

Saudi men may have to start getting used to such situations. True, Rotana remains an anomaly protected by the position and progressive ideals of its owner — global investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. And Saudi women still can't drive and legally can't even leave the house to shop, let alone get a job, without a male family member's permission. Yet under the guidance of a few members of the Saudi royal family — in particular the current King, Abdullah — the kingdom is slowly changing. Mixed-gender workplaces are becoming more common, especially in banks and good hospitals, where female doctors are not unusual. "People used to say, 'Why is she working? Why does she need the money?' Now they say, 'It takes a woman to solve a problem,'" says Norah al-Malhooq, an administrator at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Riyadh.

The government is expanding educational opportunities for women by building women's universities (as opposed to segregated campuses at male-dominated universities); last month it even launched the kingdom's first coeducational university. The state is trying to encourage women's entry into the workforce, and is sponsoring initiatives to protect women and children from domestic abuse. And it is pushing Saudis to discuss the notion of empowerment, formerly such a taboo subject that even the word was off-limits in newspapers. "The message is that women are coming," says Dr. Maha Almuneef, one of six women named earlier this year to the Shura council, a 156-person advisory body appointed by the King. "It's a good first step. The King and the political system are saying that the time has come. There are small steps now. There are giant steps coming. But most Saudis have been taught the traditional ways. You can't just change the social order all at once."

For the country's feminist and human-rights activists, and the many others who would like more freedom, the pace of change remains painfully slow. Why, they wonder, doesn't the King snap his fingers and remove some of the more obviously absurd obstacles to equality? For all the publicity about the new female members of the Shura Council, for instance, they still don't have the voting rights of their male colleagues. "This is tokenism, it's insulting," says Hatoon Ajwad al-Fassi, a columnist and assistant professor of women's history at King Saud University. "We are asking for full participation. All the doors that are closed for women should be open." Given government restrictions on the right to assemble and discuss political issues even in private homes, al-Fassi says it's impossible to know just how many Saudi women want change. "It's an exaggeration to call it a women's movement. But we are proud to say that something is going on in Saudi Arabia. We are not really free, but it is possible for women to express themselves as never before."

Change, and Its Limits
Saudi Arabia's western allies have been pushing it to reform its social and political arrangements since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia, where a conservative version of Islam, high unemployment, limited democratic rights and archaic attitudes to women fed a mood of unchecked radicalism among some young men. Last February, Abdullah announced a sweeping reshuffle of posts in government to remove some of the more old-style figures, including a top judge who once ruled it would be legal to kill the owners of a television station that broadcast "immorality." Abdullah installed an Education Minister charged with ensuring that schools emphasize Islam's tradition of tolerance, and a woman, Norah al-Faiz, to be Deputy Minister in charge of girls' education, the first time a woman has held a Cabinet-level post.

Though al-Faiz is well known and admired, her appointment also reveals the limits to the changes under way in Saudi Arabia. Al-Faiz meets with her male colleagues only by videophone, asks her minister for permission to appear on television, declined to be photographed for this story and vented her frustration to the press when what appeared to be an old passport-style photograph of her (without a niqab) appeared on the Internet. Al-Faiz told TIME that she brings no special mandate beyond improving education for girls. "I don't like quick action," she says. "I'll have to decide where the needs are and to rank them. I believe in teamwork."

Al-Faiz's caution is understandable. She's being watched by the whole country. "The pressure is huge, not to make a mistake," says Dr. Hanan al-Ahmady, a friend of al-Faiz, and her successor as head of the women's department at the Institute of Public Administration, a government school for civil servants. "You have to prove you are not giving away your religious principles. You have to prove that participating in public affairs and taking leadership positions doesn't jeopardize Islamic values and Saudi identity."

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