Saudi Women Say Progress Slow but Steady

Women still marginalized in conservative culture, but many pushing for changes.

ByABC News via via logo

Oct. 23, 2007 — -- There are more than 7 million women in Saudi Arabia and not one of them can drive a car, vote or appear in public without covering her hair.

The country has come under intense international criticism for its treatment of women. There are many restrictions on where they can work, where and when they can travel or even be seen in public.

Strict customs, religion and societal pressure feed this deeply closed society. Some women choose not to cover their faces in public, but all women cover their bodies in an abaya, a long, loose black robe.

Despite the veiled society, women work as doctors, teachers and even business leaders, but progress has been painfully slow for many.

For example, the first TV news anchorwoman only appeared 2½ years ago.

"A lot of people here they are not used to see women dealing with such fields," Buthaina Nassr, the news anchor, told "Good Morning America's" Robin Roberts. "Men, they were worried that their daughters would follow my steps, because they don't believe that the woman should appear with her face."

More women are also fighting for the right to get behind the wheel of a car. In the last two months, two Saudi television shows tackled the topic. One show portrayed a woman dressing up as a man to drive a taxi.

"It will probably not happen overnight, but the fact that you are seeing women fighting back is really an encouraging sign," said Mona Eltahawy, an analyst on Arab issues.

Behind closed doors, women are forging another break with the past. The MySpace of Saudi Arabia is called Netlog and it's booming as Saudi women go online to meet potential suitors.

Recently a women-only hotel and spa opened — it's a first in a country where women can rarely go out without a male escort.

They are small steps, but they resonate loudly in the conservative culture.

Saudi Arabia has no cinema or movie industry, but that's not stopping 24-year-old Harvard-educated filmmaker Noor al-Dabbagh from getting her message out. Her latest documentary discusses Americans' perceptions of her homeland.

"I feel like I'm in the middle of a fast change," al-Dabbagh said. "It may look slow from the outside, but there are a lot of things going on, people debating, trying to have a voice heard, so I'm excited to be part of that."

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