Under the abaya, Saudi women grasp reform toehold

Fri Jun 22, 2012 10:48am EDT

1 of 3. Men and women wait in separate lines to order at McDonald's in Riyadh's Faisaliah mall May 16, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Arlene Getz

(Reuters) - Deema al-Mashabi is eager to show off the gold brocade decorating the folds of her abaya. She designed her own robe — the traditionally all-black, enveloping gown that observant Muslim women wear in public.

For al-Mashabi, appearing in public in a customized style is not just a fashion statement, but a symbol of the changes taking place in her native Saudi Arabia.

"A lot of women are designing their own abayas now," she said of her reversible garment.

Indeed, the glitzed-up abayas being seen all over Saudi Arabia, stand as a metaphor for the gains women are making in this oil-rich kingdom. Women are not throwing off their cloaks, but they are making modest inroads in loosening the restrictions that govern this male-ordered, conservative country, which is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.

That is the impression gained by a group of senior American editors — including this reporter - who visited Riyadh last month as fellows of the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University. Although men remain dominant and women's rights are severely limited by Western standards, there are signs of incremental change in education and politics, as well as fashion.

Like the decorations on the abayas, the movement is often nuanced and visible only on the fringes.

Like Henry Ford and his Model T, which he told customers they could have in any color so long as it was black, abayas still come almost exclusively in only one color. But in Riyadh's upscale Faisaliah mall, many now boast glittery embroidered caricatures and carry a price tag in riyal equivalent to $500. In Jeddah's old town market, rows of abayas selling for about $20 showcase beadwork of flowers and sunbursts. Women are finally being allowed to sell lingerie to other women, a significant change from the days when only men could handle the sale of bras. Soon, women will be allowed to sell make-up, too.

Livelier clothes hardly make for a Saudi Spring, but the 18 months of protests and uprisings that have shaken the region have left their mark on this conservative kingdom. The ruling monarch, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, swiftly responded to the Arab Spring turmoil with a package of incremental reforms that analysts say are aimed at maintaining the status quo without provoking a backlash from the powerful religious clergy.

Last year, he announced a $93 billion financial aid package for citizens and promised that women will be allowed to take part in the next municipal elections in 2015 - the only elections held in Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by an absolute monarchy. He also decreed that women can serve as full members of the Consultative Council, or Majlis al-Shura, a 150-member advisory council he appoints for four-year terms.

The king also acted swiftly after the death of Crown Prince Nayef last week to safeguard his reforming legacy by appointing a moderate successor. Less than a day after leading funeral prayers Sunday for his late heir, King Abdullah appointed as crown prince the pragmatic Prince Salman, a brother considered likely to continue the monarch's initiatives.

REINING IN THE MUTAWA

Perhaps the most noticeable Saudi lifestyle change comes from the reining in of the religious police, known as the mutawa but officially titled the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The commission's members often have functioned as volunteer vigilantes, raiding malls to chastise women for showing their hair or trying to catch couples suspected of dating.

Saudi analysts say the monarch is trying to curb the mutawa by his recent appointment of a more moderate leader and last month's firing of a royal adviser who criticized the mingling of men and women in the courts.

Analysts say the new mutawa head, Sheikh Abdullatiff Abdel Asiz al-Sheikh, is navigating a fine line between placating conservative clerics and curbing abusive mutawa. Earlier this month, he made local news when he criticized one of his men for ordering a woman out of a Riyadh mall for coloring her nails.

The nail incident was recorded and posted on YouTube by the woman involved — an increasingly common publicity tactic used by Saudi women against the religious police.

It remains unclear, however, how much of a reformist the new religious police chief really is. Arrangements for our group to interview him stalled because it included women.

"We were told that he was reluctant to meet with a mixed gender group," said Louise Lief, the deputy director of the International Reporting Project, who led the editors' delegation to Saudi Arabia. "We were told that he would meet only with the men, but I would not agree to do that."

A Saudi Ministry of Information official told Reuters there had been an "unfortunate miscommunication" with the editors' group. One official familiar with the interview request believed the mutawa leader may have avoided it so as not to give ammunition to his conservative critics.

Meanwhile, bearded members of the mutawa continue to patrol for women who show strands of hair in public and to remove men — only recently allowed to enter malls alone — who they think are looking too closely at the robed female shoppers.

Other forms of gender segregation continue to be rigidly enforced: men and women have to stand in separate lines at fast food restaurants and eat in separate sections of coffee shops and food courts. Museums have different opening days for male and female visitors. Access to clothing stores is often restricted by gender, with "ladies only" signs at lingerie stores like the upscale La Perla chain.

Even in international hotels, foreign female guests are barred from the swimming pools or gyms. For exercise they are confined to makeshift hotel rooms — often with euphemistic names such as the make-up room — equipped with just two or three exercise machines.

For Saudi women and girls, restrictions extend to the playing field. Girls don't have exercise classes at school, and the few women's soccer and basketball teams must practice secretly. Saudi Arabia also refuses to include women in its London Olympics team, although one Saudi female equestrian may yet be permitted - but probably not as an official team member.

Saudi women do try to exercise in spite of the obstacles. There is a waiting list for the Curves gym in Riyadh, and the all-women Luthan hotel draws a loyal clientele to its elegant spa that comes complete with a biggest loser exercise class, a well-equipped gym, weight room and indoor pool.

EDUCATION IS KEY

One sign of change is that Saudi women are being encouraged to pursue world-class educations, with new schools opening for gifted girls and a greater emphasis on attending university. In 1965, the country's female literacy rate was 5 percent. Today, 60 percent of the college students in Saudi Arabia are women, and their employment rate has nearly tripled from 5.4 percent to 14.4 percent, according to a report in Thursday's Saudi Gazette.

The king has also launched a generous scholarship program for young Saudis to study abroad with about 130,000 students now enrolled at universities outside the country, about half of whom are in the United States. Many are women, yet they only are granted an award if a male relative travels with them.

Still, as these women return, the king may be hoping their exposure to the outside world will help him move mainstream opinion in favor of controlled change, observers say.

"I think it's a great success story," James B. Smith, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said of the scholarships. "Nothing is more valuable than cultures coming together and sharing experiences."

Even so, not all Saudi women necessarily want change. "For the average middle-class Saudi woman who comes from a healthy family background, life is pretty good," Eman Al Nafjan wrote this month in an op-ed column in the International Herald Tribune.

Nafjan, who spent part of her childhood in the American Middle West, in Kansas, agrees that Saudi women suffer from a "comparative lack of rights," but said that international coverage was forcing "painful cultural conflicts."

Affluent and educated Saudis do not consider their family members to be oppressed, she wrote, and "many Saudis regard the requirement that their mothers, wives and sisters obtain permission slips to leave the country or pursue higher education as nothing but a minor inconvenience."

But for some women, the limited reforms are not enough. A group of female activists this week called on women to get behind the wheel next week in defiance of a ban on women drivers, though many women say this is not their key concern.

"If you want to pick a battle, driving is the wrong one," said Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel, wife of Saudi billionaire businessman Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and the vice chairwoman of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundations. "There are much more serious issues here."

The biggest issue, she said, is that divorced women are forced to give custody of their daughters to their ex-husbands.

"What I really want is a legal identity," said Fawziah Baker al-Bakr, a professor of education at King Saud University in Riyadh. "Women don't want to be kept as perpetual minors who need their husband's signature for everything."

Bakr does care about driving. Her participation in a public driving protest in the early 1990s led to her losing her job and having death threats force her out of her home. She's back at work now, but still has not met her male boss in person because women have to work in separate buildings.

Nonetheless, she remains optimistic that change in Saudi Arabia is indeed afoot. "There is a real ease in the pressure," she said. "But the problem is that the easing is not systematic. It's inconsistent and contradictory."

(Reporting by Arlene Getz; Editing by Angus McDowall and Leslie Adler)