[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Saturday, 29 April 2006, 11:16 GMT 12:16 UK
Saudi Arabia's unseen reform
BBC's Bridget Kendall
By Bridget Kendall
BBC Diplomatic Correspondent, Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is mainly viewed by others as a traditionally conservative society, particularly in its attitudes towards women. But, below the surface change is happening, even if reformers are wary of moving too quickly in case they face a traditionalist backlash.

A Saudi woman walks past a shop selling women's clothing in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (Photo: Mahmoud Mahmoud/AFP/Getty Images)
Time and again, the women I met in Jeddah and Riyadh insisted how women dressed was not the priority, that reform in Saudi Arabia was about other things
We were in Bubbles cafe on the waterfront in Jeddah, the mixed section, where men and women are allowed in together.

There were five young Saudi women, some students, some working, one about to be wed in an arranged marriage.

They look at me with their bright vivacious eyes, all of them in black from head to foot. One girl even veils her face. But she shows off the butterfly sleeves of her abaya.

"It's the latest fashion", she explains proudly, defending the Saudi dress code. "We're the only Muslim nation that follows the book properly," she boasts.

Time and again, the women I met in Jeddah and Riyadh insisted how women dressed was not the priority, that reform in Saudi Arabia was about other things.

"The abaya for us is like the sari for Indians," says Sabah, an elegant university professor.

"And it's hypocritical of the West to applaud Nepal and Bhutan for preserving their heritage, she says, and then claim Saudi Arabia's traditions oppressed women."

"Anyway it's convenient," she adds. "I wouldn't go horse riding in it, but it's stylish and comfortable."

All those I spoke to agreed, any new reforms must go slowly to avoid a backlash
She teaches me how to wrap my headscarf the Saudi way. Under the chin and twice round the head.

"And if it slips, you just fiddle with it, like playing with your hair. It can be very attractive," she says, laughing.

'Conservative anger'

It turns out life was not always like this.

Sabah remembers coming back from studying in the United States in the mid 1980s and her shock at finding her mother and sisters for the first time swathed in black robes whenever in public.

I was given different reasons why, in the last 30 years, Saudi Arabia's conservative clerics have imposed such strict codes of social conduct.

But all those I spoke to agreed, any new reforms must go slowly to avoid a backlash.

The protest by Saudi women who dared flout the ban on driving during the first Iraq war in 1991 had been disastrous, prompting a wave of conservative anger. That mistake must not be repeated this time.

From a European point of view, its reform at snail's pace. Seen through Saudi eyes, there is a definite shift taking place
"We lost 30 years, derailed by those who rejected the Western model and wanted to go back to the 14th century," said one woman, a senior executive in an oil company.

"We can't afford to lose more time. We educated Saudi women have been quietly empowering ourselves for decades." she went on, "Now we hope society is ready. But we mustn't alarm anybody."

The key, all agreed, was women's education.

Royal reformer

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Bin-Abd-al-Aziz Al Saud
King Abdullah is driving change in Saudi Arabia
Saudi universities are segregated, separate campuses for men and women, to the extent that male lecturers as a rule only interact with female students via videophone linkups.

But there are now more female than male students in Saudi Arabia all keen to seize new opportunities and an inevitable threat to young Saudi males, already facing rising unemployment.

From a European point of view, it is reform at snail's pace. Seen through Saudi eyes, there is a definite shift taking place.

And the key, it seems, is that it has been blessed by the country's new ruler, King Abdullah.

There is no democracy here.

There are no political parties, or even a proper parliament. And criticism of the ruling Royal Family is out of the question.

Ask someone about Saudi princes and you will find the conversation soon peters into silence.

But a reform-minded King can send a signal no-one will disobey, even if privately they are against it.

Absolute monarchy has its uses.

Visible breakthrough

We arrive at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, to meet the women who just last year have been allowed to join the board.

Across from us sit the men all in white and women all in black. In my ignorance I do not realise that even this is a breakthrough.

"The biggest proof that things are changing is that we are here with the men, not hidden behind a screen anymore," one woman pointed out.

"It's a move away from anonymity to becoming more visible."

New experiences

Every encounter in this intricate society brings fresh surprises.

At dinner that evening I sit next to a deputy minister in the Saudi government. We talk about his student days in America, where he shared a house with five others.

"When one of the American girls had a date," he mused, "she used to take over my bedroom, and I had to sleep in her bed, in the same room as her female roommate.

"But my next lodgings were even stranger," he continued cheerfully, "I shared a house with two lesbians...Best years of my life," he laughed.

"Everyone should go abroad to broaden their experience."

Stern warning

Sabah takes me to a shopping mall. It is like the glossiest of American precincts, except every woman is in black, some with their spectacles perched atop veiled faces.

A group of clerics is passing and one gestures at me sternly. I cover my head obediently

There is a steady trade at the abaya shop. Next door a display of lingerie is far sexier than anything I have seen in London.

The newest move is to introduce female shop assistants here, so Saudi women no longer need to buy their underwear from male attendants.

There is a tap on my shoulder.

A group of clerics is passing and one gestures at me sternly. I cover my head obediently. They sweep on past.

In this complex land of rules you never quite fathom, take nothing for granted.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 29 April, 2006 at 1030 GMT / 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO:
Saudi women break into business
27 Feb 06 |  Middle East
Country profile: Saudi Arabia
31 Jan 06 |  Country profiles
Two women win in Saudi election
30 Nov 05 |  Middle East


RELATED INTERNET LINKS:
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

PRODUCTS & SERVICES

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific