Beirut - The dominant image of Saudi Arabian women in the world isn't particularly positive. Nor is it comprehensively informed. Ask a random sampling in the West or in the more liberal corners of the Arab world about what they know of Saudi women and you're likely to get two recurring and ultimately adolescent replies - they're covered in black, and they can't drive.
It is the gross simplicity of this image that writer Mona Almunajjed strives to correct, complicate and contradict with her new book, "Saudi Women Speak: 24 Remarkable Women Tell Their Success Stories". Just published by the Arab Institute for Research and Publishing in Amman and Beirut, "Saudi Women Speak" contains 24 interviews with 24 women who have a lot to say, indeed.
Almunajjed opens with a concise introduction to Saudi history, the rights of women in Islam and their status in Saudi society today. She courses through a brief but crucial narrative of community development and social reform in the kingdom since 1960, and ends her preamble with a set of light yet forceful prescriptions for how those reforms should move forward - make the education system more responsive to the labour market, allow equal access to information and technology, forge partnerships between the government and non-governmental organisations to promote women in the workplace and slowly dismantle the obstacles that bar women from participating in public life by insisting, at home and in early schooling, that women's emancipation and Islam are in no way mutually exclusive.
All 24 of the women profiled in "Saudi Women Speak" are pioneers in one way or another. Eight of them are members of the Saudi royal family, including the late queen, Iffat Bint Mohammad Bin Abdullah al-Thunayyan, whom Almunajjed interviewed before her death in February 2002.
Queen Iffat moved to Saudi Arabia from Istanbul in the 1930s. At the time, there were no schools at all for young women, and no place for her daughters to seek an education except at home with a private tutor. So Queen Iffat established a pilot school for boys in the 1940s and opened the first orphanage for girls, Dar al-Hanan (House of Affection), in the 1950s. A decade later Dar al-Hanan spawned schools offering elementary, intermediate and secondary education. By the 1970s, Iffat was building the kingdom's first community college for women.
As valuable as Almunajjed's facts are her question-and-answer sessions with her subjects. These conversations cut through flowery linguistic elegance and ritualised small talk to pierce the issues at hand. "Human beings," says Queen Iffat matter-of-factly, "should know how to use their brains."
Among the other characters profiled in "Saudi Women Speak" are Aisha al-Mana, a hospital director and the first Saudi woman to earn a PhD and Adelah Bint Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, daughter of the current Saudi king.
Almunajjed's interview with Mana illustrates where the strengths of "Saudi Women Speak" lie, describing her struggle to establish her own company, Al-Khalijiyah for Development, which endeavoured to add computer training to the education of young women.
Just before the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1991, Mana and 47 other Saudi women staged a peaceful, silent protest against the impending conflict by getting into 14 cars and driving them around in circles through the streets of Riyadh. Mana and her co-conspirators wanted to prove that women require mobility - even more so in times of war. Because women aren't allowed to drive in the kingdom, they were all fined and deposited at the nearest police station where they had to wait for their men to come pick them up and take them home.
"We just wanted to raise an issue and to bring it to the surface," Mana tells Almunajjed.
All told, Almunajjed's book doesn't cut across class lines or cover the full breadth of Saudi society. She emphasises a generation of relatively privileged women who have been the first to succeed in a variety of professional, artistic and philanthropic fields. They haven't all had an easy time of it, and they are forthright in tallying their grievances.
While the overall vibe of the book is positive, Almunajjed's interviews illustrate a daunting agenda of work that remains to be done.
That said, if Almunajjed's is ultimately a taboo-busting book, then her approach is stealthy and subtle. She asks her subjects for their opinions on Saudi men, about their daily lives, their schedules, how they manage their time, what they think about what they have achieved and the advice they would give subsequent generations.
Had Almunajjed delved into racier topics, "Saudi Women Speak" might have been a runaway bestseller, a grown-up version of "The Girls of Riyadh". But then again, it's unlikely any of the women included here would have agreed to talk. As it is, Almunajjed's book marks the first time these women have granted interviews to be perused by a reading public.
Almunajjed's carefully calibrated process shines through in her interview with Adelah Bint Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, daughter of the current Saudi king. The Beirut-born princess speaks as candidly about the effect of her parents' divorce as she does about the need to overhaul her country's education system and introduce further reforms and allow more women to work.
"I am only one part of this whole society and I am presenting my point of view," she says. "However, we cannot go back. We need to become more liberal and we need to change."
Mona Almunajjed's "Saudi Women Speak: 24 Remarkable Women Tell Their Success Stories" is published by the Arab Institute for Research and Publishing.
* Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a staff writer for the Daily Star. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
Source: Daily Star, 27 March 2007, www.dailystar.com.lb
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