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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 September, 2003, 17:13 GMT 18:13 UK
Saudi women join reform call
Blast damage
Petitioners are worried Saudi Arabia is a breeding ground for extremists
A number of women in Saudi Arabia have signed a petition calling for radical reform to tackle growing extremist Islamic influence in the country.

The document, signed by more than 300 people including 51 women, was handed in to Crown Prince Abdullah.

Called "In Defence of the Nation", it highlights the absence of popular participation in decision-making.

Critics say this lack makes the kingdom a breeding ground for extremists.

'Outspoken attack'

The BBC's Middle East analyst, Roger Hardy, says it is unprecedented for such a petition to be signed by women, putting new pressure on both the religious conservatives, the ulama, and the ruling princes.

He says the pressure for wide-ranging reforms is becoming a groundswell.

The key question, our correspondent says, is whether Prince Abdullah can please the liberals without alienating the powerful ulama.

Saudi Arabia has come under increasing pressure to reform since the 11 September terror attacks, when 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi.

The petition is the third one handed in this year.

The latest document condemned acts of violence and urged the Crown Prince to recognise the need to start implementing radical comprehensive reform process.

"Expectations are high," said Fowziyah Abu-Khalid, a sociologist and writer and one of the women who signed the petition.

We want change to come from within, and from our own culture
Abu Khalid
Female signatory
Saudis are not allowed to hold public gatherings to discuss political or social issues, and press freedoms are limited.

Women are segregated in public places, cannot drive cars and must be covered from head to toe when in public.

Abu-Khalid, one of the female signatories, told AP news agency: "We want change to come from within, and from our own culture.

"And we both, men and women, are ready to shoulder the responsibility."

'Pace of change slow'

In January more than 100 Saudis signed a petition calling for wide-ranging reforms.

Our correspondent said Saudi liberals clearly feel that while there is a lot of talk of reform, the pace of change is painfully slow.

In May, suicide bombings in the capital Riyadh left 35 people dead.

The bomb attacks have acted as a catalyst - jolting many Saudis into seeing that Islamic extremism is a far more powerful internal threat than they had realised, he added.

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