Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Veil power

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Veil power: "In the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, sexual apartheid rules. But things are changing - the world of work is opening up to women and economic freedom is beginning to empower them in other ways, too. Brian Whitaker reports

A heavy metal door guards the entrance to the women's section of the Nardeen lighting company in Riyadh. To gain admittance, you press the bell and wait. In my case it is a long wait because the arrival of a male visitor brings production to a halt inside the factory while the entire workforce of 30 women shroud their faces in black. Eventually I am allowed in, only to hear a scream from one woman in the distance who is still wrestling to pull her abaya over an orange-coloured dress. Unsure of the protocol, I turn my back to await the all-clear.

While the factory satisfies the kingdom's traditionalists on one count - keeping the sexes apart - the very idea of women going out to work is still controversial. Even among Saudi women themselves, as many as 39%, according to one survey, still believe their rightful place is at home. For other women, though, the big question is not the supply of jobs but how to get to work if they take one - in this most traditional of Arab states, women are still forbidden, by custom, if not specifically by law, to drive.

With Riyadh's scarce buses considered unsuitable for women, some rely on male family members to drive them to work. Others, like Hindi al-Tuwajri, divorced and with three children, pay a driver 400 riyals a month - 20% of her total income - to take her to the factory each day, a 20-minute journey.

Journalism is one area in which Saudi women are now well established. Among the best known is Rania al-Baz, a popular television presenter who disappeared from the screens suddenly in 2004 because her husband had beaten her so badly that she needed 12 operations. And Sabria Jawhar introduces herself with a business card saying she is "head of the ladies' department" at the Saudi Gazette in Jeddah. Jawhar has an MA in applied linguistics and, like most professional Saudi women, speaks perfect English.

The rival daily, Arab News, has 10 full-time women among its 40 staff.

Coffee shops and restaurants are curtained off into sections, with separate entrances for "singles" (ie, single men) and families. Sometimes there's also a women-only section. The family section is where people do their dating. "We always make jokes that having such a system where your table is surrounded by partitions or curtains - if someone wants to have a date or something, it's perfect privacy," Jabarti says.

The kingdom's sexual apartheid is enforced, in a crude fashion, by the religious police, the mutawa. Thuggish, bigoted and with little real training in Islamic law, they are much feared in some areas but also increasingly ridiculed. In Jeddah - a more laid-back city than Riyadh - they are rarely seen nowadays.

Saudi Arabia signed the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 2000 - but it added a rider claiming the right to ignore any part of the treaty that conflicts with "the norms of Islamic law".

Men and women, of course, do their partying separately. Men's parties tend to be dull affairs. In Riyadh, male partygoers just sit around, Mr A says. In Jeddah they play cards. In Ha'il (in the north), they may do a bit of sword-dancing. Then they go home, usually by midnight. "The point is that you should always be sad," Mr A grumbles.

Women's parties are a different matter, and often carry on until 4am with dancing, female DJs and sometimes all-woman bands."

No comments: