Women in Saudi Arabia won a small but promising victory this year. No, they aren't being allowed to drive; that's still forbidden. Most of the time, they still can't work, travel or even open bank accounts without the approval of a male guardian. But they do have this: Saudi women can now buy lingerie in stores from female salesclerks, instead of the sometimes leering men who used to staff the counters. If this modest wave of liberalization continues, they may even get fitting rooms.
It doesn't sound like much, but in the glacial process of modernization in the tradition-bound kingdom, it's an important step. "This is the beginning of a real social change," Eman Nafjian, one of the new generation of Saudi women's activists, told me over coffee in Riyadh, the capital, last week. "It will allow more women to work in shopping malls. And that's a step toward more opportunities for women's employment in general."
It wasn't easy to win the right to sell lingerie. The change has been debated since 2005, but it was resisted by traditionalists who oppose allowing women to work outside the home — even though, in this case, the prohibition forced women to bargain with men over bras and panties. The rule was changed only after women spent two years agitating through a Facebook campaign called "Enough Embarrassment," and only after the (male) minister of labor was emboldened to obtain and enforce a decree from King Abdullah. (You'd think the king has more important things to do, but a royal decree is the only way anything of significance gets changed in Saudi Arabia.)
That's a microcosm, Nafjian said, of how life is improving for women in Saudi Arabia: slowly, and not at all surely. In Saudi terms, Abdullah is a modernizer; he's promoted education for women, including thousands of college scholarships in the United States, and he's even promised to begin appointing women to his official advisory council, the Shura — but not until 2013. (There's no elected legislature.) Still, each tiny step forward prompts furious resistance from traditionalists, including Islamic scholars who warn that change is irreligious and conservative women who say they like the old ways better.
The debate goes on even in Nafjian's own family, an affluent-but-not-wealthy clan in Riyadh's upper middle class. Her conservative uncle is furious at her for speaking out in public and has demanded that she stop. "He says I'm going to make us all pariahs," she said. "But my father and my brothers stood up for me."
Nafjian, 33, started a blog in English a few years ago, "Saudiwoman's Weblog" (www.saudiwoman.me), that brought the concerns of educated, upwardly mobile Saudi women to a global audience. She's written about basic rights (Saudi women still can't vote), child marriage (in rural areas, girls as young as 8 are sometimes given to older men in marriage) and issues of everyday life, like driving and shopping. "My father would prefer that I blogged about Saudi cooking," she laughed.
She walked into a hotel lobby for our meeting dressed in a black abaya, the head-to-toe garment that Saudi women wear in public, and a veil that concealed most but not all of her hair. She was trailed by her brother Khalid, who came along cheerfully as driver and chaperon. He said he supports her activism. "All these restrictions on women are nuts," he said. Her husband, a telecommunications engineer, supports her stances too, she said. She has three small children, she teaches English, and she's finishing work on a doctorate in linguistics.
The Saudi women's movement won international attention last June when at least five women were arrested for daring to drive their own cars in the country's cities. (Nafjian, who never learned to drive, videotaped the protest as a passenger in a friend's car.) But driving wasn't the main thing that made the government angry (driving by women is tolerated in rural areas); it was the challenge of a noisy, well-publicized protest.
"The driving issue has become a little tedious," Nafjian said. "The ban will be changed one of these days; I'm sure of it. But for the moment, they're happy that all we're asking for is women driving instead of the downfall of the government."
More important than driving, she said, are issues such as basic legal rights (a woman's testimony in court still gets only half the weight of a man's), employment (women are still restricted to jobs where they won't have to mingle with men — mostly teaching, nursing and, now, sales work in women's shops), and the persistent rural practice of forcing young girls into marriage. "It's socially unacceptable to most Saudis," Nafjian said, "but it's a tradition, so there's a lot of resistance to outlawing it."
Does that mean Saudi Arabia's modernizing urban women want to scrap the monarchy — the ultimate patriarchal system — and fast-forward to democracy? Quite the contrary. "A revolution like the ones they had in Egypt and Tunisia would be the worst-case scenario here," Nafjian said. "Most Saudis are conservative. A popular uprising here would make the [militant] Salafists in Egypt look like liberals. We would turn into Taliban."
If she's right, the country's liberals, democrats and cultural modernizers are trapped in the odd predicament of relying on an 87-year-old king and his male heirs for protection. The best-case scenario, she said, would be for a progressive wing of the royal family to rise to power once Abdullah is gone, men who would continue nudging the Saudi economy into the 21st century while keeping the nation's politics firmly rooted in the 7th. But there's no guarantee; the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Nayef, is a noted conservative — and an apparently healthy 78.
Meanwhile, Nafjian said, Saudi Arabia's women will keep organizing through private coffee circles and Internet chatrooms. "We can't be a formal association," she noted. "That's illegal."
And they'll welcome all the foreign attention they can get, as they did during the one-day driving protest in June.
"When foreigners make noise over women's rights, that's a good thing, because we're not allowed to," she said. "The more embarrassing an issue is to the government, the more likely it is to be resolved."
After all, they did get that change in the lingerie stores. By this time next year, with luck, they might even be allowed to drive.