Report: Saudi Women Stuck in 'Permanent Childhood'

Saudi women were granted the right to stay in hotels alone and played their first public soccer match in front of a women-only stadium.

In the same months, international headlines told of one women arrested for sitting with a male co-worker at Starbucks and another sentenced to lashings after suffering a gang rape because she was in the car of a man who wasn't a relative when the two were attacked.

The paradox, says professor Bernard Haikal, reflects the forces at play in Saudi society.

"Very often in discussion of Saudi society and Saudi law it's [falsely] assumed that the government is the only agent that is either imposing the system or can change it unilaterally. The society itself -- with cultural and tribal norms -- holds very fast to a highly gendered and highly male-dominated form of life," said Haikal, an Islamic studies specialist at Princeton University.

"It seems the present government, the king and many ministers around him really do want change," Haikal told ABC News.

"The government has very slowly, very sensitively tried to bring in administrative reforms that give women greater rights. But the application hasn't been easy, there's tremendous resistance on the ground."

When legislative steps are taken, they are hard to enact, as with a 2005 law to promote female participation in the work force, calling for women to replace male salesmen in lingerie shops. Haikal says when there was a conservative uproar opposing the law, it was eventually dropped.

"The government calls itself reform-minded, but they are still paralyzed by the clerical establishment. … It's a question of political will," said Deif of Human Rights Watch, who helped compile the report.

A spokesman for Saudi's Human Rights Commission told Reuters that "we agree with some points and we are working on that as a commission for the government, but we don't agree with the generalization."

Haikal doubts whether this week's report or others like it help to achieve the reforms they call for, despite the authors' best intentions.

"These reports are used as ammunition for slowing change, not moving it along. This is the kind of report where Islamists point to and say Westerners want our women walking around and sleeping around, the West is trying to interfere with our society, identity, our way of life," said Haikal.

Deif acknowledges that in Saudi Arabia and other countries of concern for human rights organizations there can be internal resistance to external pressures.

"There is always a hesitation. Do we stay completely silent and that way the [pro-reform elements] can save face, let things move gradually behind the scenes? Yet with the Qatif case we saw they were embarrassed into dropping the sentence," said Deif, referring to the high-profile case of a rape victim sentenced to 200 lashes in 2007.

"International pressure is what made the difference."

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