Saudi Women Rise in Defense of the Veil

Faten Khorshid, who conducts cancer research in Jiddah, says that her conservative views have not held her back and that her veil makes it easier for doctors to concentrate on work.
Faten Khorshid, who conducts cancer research in Jiddah, says that her conservative views have not held her back and that her veil makes it easier for doctors to concentrate on work. (By Faiza Saleh Ambah For The Washington Post)

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By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 1, 2006

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- More than 500 women packed the Saudi capital's Maimouna Center on a recent evening to attend a lecture. The women, some still in their full black wraps, filled the rows of plum-colored plastic chairs, while late arrivals sat in small clusters on the carpet and against the wall.

"Whom do we love?" asked the lecturer, a woman, seated behind a desk on a raised platform.

"God," the women answered in unison.

"Then we must obey Him."

She went on to urge the audience members to dress modestly and raise their daughters to do the same. She explained that, despite what some Saudis are now saying, it is a sin for men and women to mix. "Even if people don't see you sin, God is watching," she warned. "On Judgment Day, your own skin will testify against you."

As she took copious notes, Mashael al-Eissa dabbed at tears, overcome by the extent of her religious responsibilities.

Eissa, a fiery young Internet writer, and the lecturer, Afrah al-Humaydi, are among a group of conservative Saudi women trying to redress what they view as an erosion of traditional values in the kingdom and a dangerous shift in the status of women.

"Saudi women are the luckiest in the world and Saudi Arabia is the closest thing to an ideal and pure Islamic nation," Eissa said. "We don't want imported Western values to destroy that."

The changes that have so riled Eissa and other conservative women followed the intense scrutiny that Saudi Arabia received after the discovery that 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States were Saudis. The lack of personal liberties in the kingdom -- an absolute monarchy that imposes a strict form of Islam -- was widely held to be an underlying part of the extremist ideology the attackers shared.

Shortly afterward, strict censorship of the media was loosened and subjects that the religious establishment had placed off-limits for decades, such as the ban on women driving or working alongside men, were openly debated. Women, previously hidden, started appearing as television newscasters, and their photos became daily staples in the press.

King Abdullah, crowned in August, called for increased work opportunities for women and started including female journalists, professors and business leaders on his trips overseas.

And during regional tours last year, both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes said Saudi women needed broader political rights to make changes in their lives.


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