Page last updated at 10:13 GMT, Monday, 28 March 2011 11:13 UK

The Saudi women taking small steps for change

The on-going battles to bring about change for women in Saudi Arabia tend to be small ones but some are being won

Sue Lloyd-Roberts
BBC Newsnight

Before I flew to the Saudi capital Riyadh to make a film about the position of women in the kingdom, I met a Saudi woman studying in the UK who told me, "Saudi Arabia is the biggest women's prison in the world".

Can I quote you? I asked. "You can quote me," she said, "but you can't name me."

I heard that same sentiment and request to remain anonymous repeated during my 10-day stay in the kingdom.

Few dare criticise the
country openly, though the restrictions on women are scarcely believable in the 21st Century. A woman can't drive and she is not allowed to work or travel without the permission of her male guardian, father or husband.

Customs such as arranged marriages, under-age marriage and polygamy still prevail.

Workplace revolution

Dina, an employee at Radio Mix FM in Jeddah
Some conservatives don't like the fact that women like Dina work with men

The on-going battles to bring about change tend to be small ones.

Twenty-year-old Dina, with her heavily kohl-rimmed eyes and diamante cuffs on her abaya (the burka of Saudi Arabia), is a revolutionary in the workplace. She sits in the Jeddah studio at Radio Mix FM with a man.

Up until a few years ago, men and women were not allowed to work in the same room and broadcast journalism has so far proved one of the very few exceptions.

But, beyond that, Dina's message is hardly revolutionary. She acts as a kind of agony aunt for the station's young audience.

A 17-year-old girl sends in an e-mail complaining of boredom. Dina tells her to take up a hobby like painting or photography which, because an unaccompanied girl is not allowed to leave the house, she will have to do at home.

We Saudi women are privileged and pampered by our guardians and we have drivers to get us about
Radwa Yousef

If an 18-year-old wrote in asking how to meet a member of the opposite sex, Dina says she would respond by saying, "It is not possible and [you] must accept it - it is our culture".

At the end of her shift, her boss accompanies her down on to the street and waits until her brother's car pulls up to collect her.

"You present your own radio show and yet you can't drive?" I asked. "It's normal," she said, and closed the car door.

She has to watch what she says. The radio station receives angry calls from the country's religious conservatives who are appalled that women like her are allowed to sit in the same room as an unrelated man.

Any false step or unguarded remark could see the station closed.

Lingerie campaign

Reem Asaad, a 38-year-old college lecturer in finance at a Jeddah women's college, believes that women will never be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia and that there should be a public transport system.

Reem Asaad
Reem Asaad is campaigning to get lingerie shops to employ women

But would women be allowed to use it? "Probably not," she admitted, "unless chaperoned."

Women in the kingdom are not allowed to come into contact with any man who is not a family member. Even the few women who run businesses have to employ a male manager to negotiate with other men.

"It is limiting, restricting and humiliating," Ms Asaad said bitterly, "but we are used to it."

Thousands of girls graduate every year but, beyond teaching in an all-girls' school or college, career opportunities are limited and unemployment is high.

Women are not allowed to serve behind a shop counter. If you want to buy a bra in Saudi Arabia, you must ask a male shopping assistant, who will be an expat because a Saudi man could never discuss a bra size with a woman.

Ms Asaad is campaigning both through social media and with the owners of lingerie shops to get some female assistants hired - but she has to employ a male intermediary to negotiate on her behalf with the men who own the shops.

Privileged and pampered

Radwa Yousef
Ms Yousef won praise from religious conservatives for her campaign

Women in Saudi Arabia are not always helped by other women.

Radwa Yousef, who runs an organisation called My Guardian Knows What is Best For Me, says she wants to "dispel the negative notions about guardianship".

"We Saudi women are privileged and pampered by our guardians and we have drivers to get us about," she said as she pours cardamom coffee into gilt-edged glass cups in her elegant apartment in Jeddah.

"What about the woman who would like to drive herself to work?" I asked.

"A woman who is so financially constrained that she has to work, will never be able to buy a car," she replied.

Women without identity

Away from the plush drawing rooms of wealthy women, Faadwa al-Tayar, a volunteer social worker, works in the slums of Jeddah.

She helps the "non-women" of Saudi Arabia, the women without guardians - widows or women whose husbands have left them without the formality of a divorce and who have no legal identity.

I believe that social media will help us - women are asking questions and demanding answers
Eman Fahad al Nafjana
Blogger

There is a Ministry of Welfare in the country, explains Ms Al Tayar, but it is the men who must go and ask for assistance.

"A woman is too embarrassed to go, or if her husband has left her, too ashamed."

Apathy and lack of aspiration prevail. I met a woman who lives alone with her two veiled daughters in their 20s, who have been sitting in the shadows of the house since completing primary school 15 years ago.

"I hope that they will find good husbands who will let them finish their education and look after them," she told me.

Although how the girls will find the much-needed male guardian without being able to leave the house is anyone's guess.

Other women who want to change the system are using social media - which gives them some freedom to express their frustrations.

Eman Fahad al Nafjana, a 30-year-old blogger, writes on her Saudiwoman website that the guardianship rules must change and that women are fed up with the constraints on their lives.

"I believe that social media will help us," she said. "Women are asking questions and demanding answers."

But is anyone out there listening?

Riding with bikers

In one of the more surreal moments of my visit, I found myself on the back of a motorbike one night, guest of the Jeddah Chapter of the Saudi Harley Davidson Club, being taken for a spin along the waterfront.

I spotted them as they were assembling and asked for a ride. To my astonishment, they obliged.

Surely these men, in their 20s and 30s, who had just risked being chastised by the local morality police, would be sympathetic to the plight of women?

Over coffee (alcohol is banned) and hubbly bubbly (smoking is not socially acceptable), I asked them why their wives hadn't joined them.

"Just because we say that a woman stays at home doesn't mean that we are not giving her rights," one of them answered defensively.

"A woman sits at home, she can eat, drink, she's comfortable and everything comes to her.

"In our religion, men are responsible for women. My mum, my sister, my wife, can stay at home and I'll take care of them.

"In our religion, women obey their men. If she wants to work, she can work but only with my permission. I won't be forced."

As long as women in Saudi Arabia are dependent on their husbands and fathers, and kept out of the public eye, this attitude seems unlikely to change.

Watch Sue Lloyd-Roberts' full Newsnight report on the BBC iPlayer.



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