Saudis Debate the Role of Women : Religious and Social Restraints Questioned Again

Times Staff Writer

A suggestion from a prominent Saudi princess that women have a right to work has rekindled a debate in this conservative kingdom about the proper role of women in Islamic society.

Women in Saudi Arabia long have been sheltered from the intrusion of the modern world. Saudi women are forbidden to drive cars or to associate with men, and many still wear opaque black veils over their heads. Recently, the semi-official religious police, the moutawehs, who act as guardians of public mores, tacked up signs in restaurants and cafes declaring, "Women must behave in a modest and bashful manner at all times."

Separate and Unequal

Education for women is strictly segregated, and work, to the extent it has been permissible, has been limited to "women's jobs" such as nursing, teaching at a girls' school or working in a shop or bank for women. Except for embassies and foreign companies, women never work alongside men.

The latest debate was touched off by the publication in a local magazine of an interview with Princess Hessah, the wife of Crown Prince Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz, the next in line to the Saudi throne and a leading religious conservative.

"I cannot conceive a level-headed person denying women the right to work," Princess Hessah was quoted as saying in the interview, which was accompanied by a photograph of her husband and young children.

"If (a woman) were to be denied this right, that would be tantamount to a death sentence," the princess said. "My opinion is that she must take up a job and continue to discharge her duties in life."

Immediate Debate

While the remarks might seem tame to many Americans, they immediately ignited an emotional public debate about women's proper role in this strict Islamic society.

Saudi radio programs have been filled with discussions on the subject of women working, and nearly all of the commentary broadcast had been negative--and, not surprisingly, from men.

In what appeared to be a fairly typical comment, Mustafa al Ansari, a government worker in Jubail, remarked to a reporter recently: "A woman should stay in the home. She shouldn't work unless there is an economic need by the family. I want my wife at home when I get finished with work."

Such comments might seem harsh, but many men derive their views about women from Islamic doctrine and believe they are only being pious.

This state of mind was illustrated recently when Kuwaiti authorities wrote to a leading Saudi theologian complaining that many women at Kuwait University were walking around with their heads uncovered and seeking his advice to remedy the situation. The theologian answered simply that there should be no women on a university campus.

A Religious Tradition

The tradition against women in the workplace stems from an injunction in the Koran, the Muslim holy book, against a woman's being alone with a man who is outside the "realm of consanguinity," in other words, someone other than her husband, father or son.

Theologians are fond of quoting the aphorism that when a man and a woman are alone, the third person present is the devil.

Aisha Al-Mana, a University of Colorado-educated Saudi educator, said in an interview that the limitations placed on women working are more cultural than religious. Groups of women have been working alongside men, raising animals and farming dates, for generations.

"Woman have traditionally worked side-by-side with men," said Al-Mana, who describes herself as a feminist, a rare species in Saudi Arabia. "Even the prophet worked with a woman--his wife."

Al-Mana said she believes that having many women work alongside a large group of men does not violate any religious precepts.

"Women and men are together all the time, on the street or in the market. It's only in the workplace where mixing is prohibited," she said.

Obviously, huge institutions employing thousands of workers or technological innovations such as cars were not contemplated by religious scholars hundreds of years ago. Rules governing them are thus the result of present-day interpretation.

An Unlikely Benefit

Segregation of the sexes actually has helped a lot of women rise to major jobs faster than might otherwise be expected, Al-Mana said.

Al-Mana also believes that women should drive and forgo veils, which she regards as a matter of personal choice rather than religious dogma.

The government officially endorses the idea of women working because of the severe manpower shortages here; Saudi Arabia imports foreign workers to fill the gap but would like to reduce its dependency on imported labor. A summary of economic strategy published here by the Ministry of Planning said the government should "identify the areas and bases for employment of women in a manner which would not be contrary to the Muslim faith."

"We're looking at the jobs that would allow women to work without coming into contact with men," said Hisham Nazer, the minister of planning. One such possibility, he said, would be all-female computer centers.

More Constraints Exist

Saudi Arabia's other constraints on women are largely derived from the Koran and the explanatory works known as the hadith.

According to the Koran, women should at all times be "decent," which has been defined as having the arms and hair covered from view. No mention is made of covering the face, as has become popular here and in Iran.

A man can divorce his wife merely by saying "I divorce thee" three times. While alimony is required for a short period, the wife loses all rights to visit her children.

Legal scholars note, however, that Saudi women also enjoy considerable rights of their own, such as owning businesses, which were denied women in the West until relatively recently.

"Women in the United States would be surprised to learn that Saudi women are not all that unhappy," said an American woman who has lived here for a number of years. "It's not what we would think."

Oddly, in Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden to drive, thousands of expatriates, mostly from Thailand and the Philippines, are employed as drivers for women and are often alone with them. But if a Saudi man and a Saudi woman who were not related were caught alone in a car, they could both face arrest and imprisonment.

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