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In a Land Where Women Are Invisible

I write this from Saudi Arabia on the last day of a 9-day visit. My small band of fellow travelers has been here under the sponsorship of an official Saudi governmental body. We would have preferred to come without “sponsorship,” but that is not how things work here.

Apart from the 1.5 million or more religious pilgrims from all over the world who come to Mecca on haj every year, there are few foreign visitors. The kingdom, which is what everyone calls it, does not issue “tourist” visas; business visitors must have an official Saudi sponsor.

To the foreign visitor, Riyadh, where I have spent the whole week, is an environment virtually devoid of women. In our meetings with government ministers — each ministry building, by the way, is grander than the last — we have yet to see a single female on any of the premises in any capacity. Even the people serving the coffee are men.

Sex segregation seems pretty comprehensive. There are few women on the street, there are separate shopping malls for women, and there are separate sections for men and women, sometimes curtained, in restaurants, even in our Sheraton hotel.

There is little social mixing even in private spaces. When males who are not close relatives are present in a woman’s home, she retreats to a separate space (for the affluent, to a separate living room). Saudi women were never present at any of the several gatherings we attended at private homes.

One man at one such dinner told me, as others nodded, that he had never before sat at a table in the kingdom with a woman who was not his wife, daughter or mother. (But he does so routinely when he is in the United States, where he lived for years and where two of his five children were born.)

The few women one does see are swathed in black from head to toe all the time. Most of them also cover their faces. Call me a cultural imperialist, but it took me only a day or two to hate this get-up (in which I myself am got up), not only in principle but also in fact — though local women assured us that this was trivial in the scheme of things.

Women rarely hold jobs where there are, or might be, men around. Their parents, husbands and often their own sensibilities will not permit it. Because there are just not enough jobs in female-only environments to go around, the proportion of women in the work force is tiny — most observers put it at about 3% to 5%. Women do not lack education — they constitute more than half of the university graduates — but once educated, they have practically nothing to do.

The Labor Ministry recently proposed to increase the available jobs by requiring that salespeople in lingerie shops be female. The religious establishment went crazy and the proposal was withdrawn. It may be reintroduced as a voluntary measure.

Famously, women here are prohibited from driving, so even if you have a job you can’t get to work, or anywhere else, unless you have a male to drive you. The Saudi Arabian Human Rights Commission, a governmental body created last year to “protect and promote human rights in conformity with international standards,” says it will do so “in a manner consistent with the provisions of the Islamic Sharia.” But in this dictatorship, Sharia is one of the government’s many tools to avoid promotion of human rights.

There are, of course, cracks in the sex segregation that the visitor seldom sees. A young Saudi man told me very confidentially, out of the hearing of his boss, that some young people do date and form relationships but, especially here in the Riyadh “Quran belt,” they do so furtively.

These prohibitions are enforced by the religious police, whose name translates as “The Committees of Ordering the Good and Forbidding the Evil,” regarded by some as so ignorant and fanatic that they run afoul not only of human rights standards but also of Islamic law. They have arrested and imprisoned thousands of women, including foreign workers who are not even Muslims, for nothing more than being seen talking to a man to whom they are not related.

Promotion of religious extremism in the kingdom was for many years an American-Saudi (and Israeli) venture and it suited all parties just fine while Saudi Arabia served as a bulwark against godless Communism. But it all backfired when the fundamentalists turned on both the Saudis and their American patrons.

“In many ways September 11 is the price we paid for winning the Cold War and the strategies we chose,” says Rachel Bronson in “Thicker Than Oil,” a 2006 study of American-Saudi relations since the 1930s. As for present-day Saudi-born terrorists, the Saudi government asserts that they have simply gotten Islam wrong by rejecting the legitimate religious authority of the Saudi king, who alone can authorize jihad. (The king’s official title, “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah,” sounds ancient, but it was introduced in 1982 by King Fahd as part of the Saudi drive to consolidate religious legitimacy under the king.)

Officials and activists here say the kingdom is in transition, and this may be true: Seventy percent of the Saudi population is under the age of 20, and every young person I spoke to — a self-selected group, to be sure — favors a more liberal society, the rule of law and employment opportunities for women. Most of them think the driving ban is ridiculous, and many favor making optional the abaya, the black cloak worn by women. Plural marriage, increasingly unusual in the higher social strata, is disappearing among urban young people of all classes.

It sounds hopeful, but inequality is so ingrained and people of good will — which includes not a few government officials and even royals — are so cowed by the religious zealots that real change seems very far away.

And then there is this: I observed gratuitous antisemitism. For example, the writer of an opinion article in this past Friday’s Arab News, the best of the local English language dailies, states: “Jewish voices have been prominent” among those who have “made light” of the death toll in Iraq.

I heard otherwise intelligent and open-minded people say that the Jews’ departure from Saudi Arabia in the early 1950s was entirely voluntary. And a particularly cosmopolitan and progressive human rights activist told me that the Saudis of the September 11 attacks did not have the technological know-how to have pulled it off. “So who did?” I asked him. “Mossad,” was his chilling reply.

I am glad to be leaving soon. This is not an easy place to be.

Kathleen Peratis is a partner in the New York law firm Outten & Golden.

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