Saudi Arabia: Passing The Arab Screen Test
By Barbara Lewis
Once the all-enveloping 'abayas' (as the 'burkha', or veil, is known in Saudi Arabia) that Saudi Arabian women wear whenever they appear in public were uniformly black. Now, they come embellished - with anything from sequins to animal prints.
This seems to symbolise a progress, albeit limited, towards greater freedoms in a country where women face more restrictions than almost anywhere else. "The fashion 'abayas' are one visible sign of some women taking the prevailing restraints in their stride and adapting," said Gerd Nonneman, professor of international relations and Middle East politics at the University of Exeter, southwestern England. "The rest of the Gulf is further ahead in that respect, though."
For women, other Gulf Arab nations are actually further ahead in many respects. Unlike their sisters in neighbouring countries, Saudi Arabian women cannot drive, they cannot vote and they need male sanction if they want to set up their own business. The list of strictures is long. But one thing Saudi women can achieve, provided they study in strict segregation from their male contemporaries, is a high level of education - in many cases higher than that obtained by the men.
"Young women have long been the better educated," said Nonneman, adding many complacent young men were either not bothering or not performing well.
For the educated young women, the best career springboard is Jeddah, the commercial capital on the Red Sea, rather than Riyadh, the ultra conservative political capital. Jeddah is relatively cosmopolitan, with inhabitants who are more ethnically diverse than in other parts of Saudi Arabia and the religious police tend to be less zealous here than elsewhere. For instance, in a glitzy new shopping mall, selling supposedly frowned-upon international brands, some young women abandon their head scarves, as they meet in full public view for ice cream - but they are still eating away from the men. Segregation is one of the major obstacles for women seeking a career as they find themselves cut off from established leaders in the male business community.
However, for the really determined, no obstacle is insurmountable. Among them is Lubna Olayan, chief executive officer of the Olayan Financing Company, the holding entity in Saudi Arabia for the operations of the multinational group engaged in distribution, manufacturing, services and investment. At the Jeddah Economic Conference in 2004, she became the first woman to address a mixed forum with a speech that has been likened to civil rights activist Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream'.
"My vision is of a country with a prosperous and diversified economy in which any Saudi citizen, irrespective of gender, who is serious about finding employment, can find a job in the field for which he or she is best qualified," she said.
She has endorsement from the high ups. King Abdullah, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and his daughter Princess Adelah bint Abdullah, have backed the idea of empowering women. In an interview in 2006 with 'Arab News', an English language newspaper aimed at Saudi nationals and expatriates, the princess said of her father: "He is keen to expand women's role as active members of society and partners in overall productivity."
She went so far as to suggest women were the superior sex. "Women are even better because they are prodded by the challenge to establish their worthiness," she said.
The problem is that liberals face the opposition of conservative religious forces. The clerics condemned the mixing of unveiled women with men at the Jeddah Economic Forum addressed by Olayan, according to press reports. More recently, they have spoken out against the slightly risqué 'abayas', arguing they draw undue attention to the wearers.
The king and other relatively liberal members of the ruling Al Saud family are "all performing a balancing act to avoid undercutting their support among the more socially conservative," said Nonneman. The overall effect is "a step forward and half a step back and then again a step forward".
Sometimes women, cowed by the overall atmosphere, are their own worst enemy. 'Arab News' last year drew up a list of top Saudi businesswomen and repeated the exercise this year, publishing the results in June. Its editor-in-chief, Khaled Almaeena, voiced frustration in an editorial, as some women who took part in 2007 declined to participate this year and, as he saw it, failed to grasp the newspaper's aim of inspiring others.
Only "the truly professional Saudi businesswomen - rare as precious gems - understood our goals," he wrote. The gems include Shereen Tawfiq, corporate relationship manager at the regional headquarters of Saudi Fransi Banque in Jeddah. "When I started banking eight years ago, I knew I wanted to do something challenging to the point of helping to break the normal idea that women were only employable in retail banking, education, beauty or fashion," she told the newspaper.
It is much easier for Saudi women to succeed in women-only businesses. One that has received much media coverage is a hotel in Riyadh, which is run by women exclusively for women. Supporters applaud it for meeting the need of Saudi women to find somewhere to stay without incurring censure. Critics have said it implicitly supports segregation.
Other areas of female success range from catering to event management. But nursing, regarded as ideal for women in many countries, is problematic in Saudi Arabia. "It is easy for a Saudi woman to say 'I am a nurse' and to be overlooked as a wife'," 'Arab News' wrote in its supplement on Saudi businesswomen. Women nurses are criticised for working in a mixed environment and are sometimes regarded as no more than servants.
Slowly, that is changing as the number of Saudi women studying nursing degrees rises and programmes expand to include Masters degrees and midwifery. "My father was supportive and left me to make a choice of what to study," Lujain Abdrabuh, AGE, who studied nursing at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, was quoted as saying.
In many countries, such parental support would not be worthy of comment. In Saudi Arabia, it is symptomatic of a gradual shift in attitudes.
(Courtesy: Women's Feature Service)
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