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Saudi princess joins women’s call for equality

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Princess Sarah says conservative government has to recognise women as equal half of society.

By Ali Khalil - RIYADH

As women worldwide celebrate their international day, Saudi women continue to be subjected to strict restrictions in their ultra-conservative society, although some are becoming increasingly vocal in demanding freedom.

Women in the desert kingdom that sits on a quarter of world oil reserves are forced to cover from head to toe in public, are banned from driving, and cannot travel without a written permission from their male guardian.

In a rare gesture, a female member of the royal family slammed the ultra conservatives for being the cause of restrictions on women and called on the kingdom's government to confront them in order to empower women.

"They (government) have to confront them," Princess Sarah bint Talal said, referring to influential conservatives in Saudi Arabia.

"The government has to recognise us as an equal half of society... This equal half has rights," Princess Sarah said.

Such rights go beyond driving and voting to include equal rights in "court, (especially) in divorce cases, trade, and in making schooling for women obligatory in every village in the kingdom," she said.

The kingdom applies a strict form of Sunni Islam known as "Wahhabism", which follows the interpretations of the 18th century scholar Mohammad bin Abdul Wahhab.

The Arabian scholar and his followers are known to have played a pivotal role in the history of the kingdom, and acquired an almost free hand in running religious affairs.

But the outspoken princess believes that the government should have the ability to restrain conservatives.

"Change should be through a political decision," said Princess Sarah, daughter of maverick Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz, a half-brother of King Fahd, whose outspoken views on democracy have clashed with other members of the Saudi royal family.

Although they were allowed to obtain separate identity cards a few years ago, women still need a male guardian to apply for the IDs on their behalf.

"I want to exist as a human being," Suzanne al-Ghanem, an executive director of a female-run NGO, protested.

Ghanem said she wants to be able to take decisions concerning her life by herself, including being able to rent a house or buy a car on her own.

"I always have to follow someone (male relative) regardless of my age," Ghanem complained, adding that her 65-year-old grandmother was forced to accept her 18-year-old grandson as a male guardian, being the only male left in the family.

Ghanem used to celebrate women's day by getting together with other female friends but said she gave up as "nothing changed year after year".

In addition to historical restrictions, Saudi women have been barred from three-stage landmark municipal elections which kicked off last month. Logistical obstacles were cited as the cause by officials, who promised to facilitate female participation in the next elections.

But women who get their chance to complain do not hide their frustration about male domination.

"No matter how much a woman achieves in terms of education and work, and regardless of her age, there is always male guardianship," said Maha al-Munif, noting that she still needs her husband's permission to travel even though she is a department deputy head at a big local hospital.

Maha's sister Wafa, who took part in the famous women's driving demonstration in 1990, said that thinking of women's conditions in Saudi Arabia on the occasion of International Women's Day "depresses" her.

"Some said the time was not right when it (demonstration) happened 14 years ago... It is still not right," she said sarcastically, recalling the harsh response the 47 female demonstrators got from the religious police and authorities.

The daring drivers who roamed the streets of Riyadh in 15 cars on November 6, 1990 were swiftly rounded up by police and punished harshly. Their male guardians were also reprimanded.

Created by anita
Last modified 2005-04-09 11:55 PM

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