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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 May 2007, 11:03 GMT 12:03 UK
Making a public splash in Saudi
By Rachel Reid
BBC News, Saudi Arabia

A new university for women is opening in Riyadh - yet Saudi Arabia remains a country where women cannot vote, drive, dress as they like or go where they please.

Saudi men and women in traditional dress
The women of Saudi Arabia are not just folded away behind swathes of hot black cloth - they live segregated lives
When I moved to the Middle East six months ago, I knew I would have to bid farewell to my arms and legs.

But I was happy to be working in the region, so I did not resent having to put my skirts and dresses into storage.

But as I prepared for my first trip to Saudi Arabia, I was bristling at the thought of having to wear an abaya - the all-enveloping black cloak that turns the women of the Gulf into mournful ghosts.

Perhaps that is why I called the hotel before I arrived, to ask a question I already knew the answer to - will I be able to use the swimming pool?

The response was a small silence, and then an embarrassed laugh. "Er, No madam. The pool is, of course, for men only. I am so sorry."

I have to congratulate you, Madam, I think you are the first woman to swim in public in all Saudi Arabia
The women of Saudi Arabia are not just folded away behind swathes of hot black cloth, they live segregated lives, ushered out of the all-male public spaces into so called "family" areas, escorted everywhere by husbands or male relatives, and expected to ask for male permission to travel.

So the idea of women swimming in public was laughable.

Undeterred, I wrote a slightly uppity e-mail to the manager of the hotel, protesting that whatever discrimination I expected in the country, I didn't expect it in an international hotel, and asking how he could justify charging me the same price for a lesser service.

I suggested that he could arrange a single sex time for women to swim. I even offered to swim in my abaya.

To my surprise, he agreed to my request. The pool would be mine between six and seven in the morning.

So, wishing I had someone to witness me swimming in cloak and goggles, I arrived for my swim, at dawn.

Big revolution

The night manager of the leisure centre, Walid, was waiting for me, in a state of nervous excitement.

"Good morning Madam," he said. "We have everything ready for you. We have cordoned off the pool, placed screens all around."

"So if you have everything you need I shall lock you out here so that you won't be disturbed."

He paused for a moment with his keys, and fixed me with a conspiratorial look.

"I have to congratulate you, Madam, I think you are the first woman to swim in public in all Saudi Arabia!"

A woman wearing the veil
Saudi leaders say women will be allowed to vote in 2009
I grinned. "A small revolution?" I asked.

"No a big revolution. I don't think you realise how big," he said, shaking his head in amazement.

"So since you've screened it all off, does that mean I don't have to wear an abaya?" I asked.

"You can wear what you want," he said, smiling, "No-one can see you."

I didn't feel this was the moment to point out that I was swimming in the open air, at the foot of the tallest building in the country. There was a 41-storey skyscraper looking down upon this scandal. I couldn't help but gaze up at it between lengths, and giggle.

First elections

Later that day I met an impressive woman of the Gulf called Haya Rashed al Khalifa. Haya is one of Bahrain's first female lawyers, and currently the President of the United Nations General Assembly.

She was in Riyadh to address a gathering of Arab heads of state; an unusual occasion in a region where female politicians are still an unfamiliar sight.

The first nationwide elections only took place here two years ago.

Women were not allowed to vote, let alone stand as candidates.

But Haya told the rows of men seated in front of her that they could not avoid change any longer.

The right to swim comes a long way down the list of demands of the women in Saudi Arabia - well below the right to vote, or the right to drive a car
It was time, she told the Arab leaders, that they recognised that women are part of the human race.

Meeting Haya later, I told her I was struck by her optimism.

This repression of women, she told me, is not about Islam. It is about culture. Just look at how interpretations of Islam shift with geography.

The closer countries are to other civilisations - the more progressive they are.

Take Tunisia, in North Africa, where women have had full rights for 50 years. The tides of change have now reached the Gulf.

I told her about my small ripple at the hotel. Her jaw dropped. "You asked to swim in Saudi Arabia? Young lady," she said, "that is more of a breakthrough than mine!"

It wasn't of course. The right to swim comes a long way down the list of demands of the women in Saudi Arabia - well below the right to vote, or the right to drive a car.

But the Saudi leaders are beginning to address that list.

They have said that women will be allowed to vote in the local elections of 2009.

If they keep their promise, that will be a revolution.

The women voters might still be hidden beneath abayas, but they surely won't be expected to bring their male escorts into the voting booths. Will they?

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 5 May April, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Country profile: Saudi Arabia
20 Apr 07 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Saudi Arabia
20 Apr 07 |  Country profiles

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