Thursday, February 08, 2007
Lifting the veil in Saudi Arabia
Late yesterday evening I left my hotel to buy a new battery for my mobile phone and was completely blown away by what I saw.

Saudi women without veils. I had never seen this in public before. Until now, women have always been covered, often head to toe in a black chador or cloak and a veil covering at least their hair and often their face as well. I was shocked and really had to keep doing a double take.

Perhaps they were foreigners who occasionally could get away without their hair covered? Was I really in Saudi Arabia?

I’ve been coming to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, for close to five years. It is at the heart of the country’s vast desert and is known as the Najd region. Islam here has always been conservatively interpreted. The area’s austere desert-based culture is interwoven inseparably with religious teachings. It’s where the Wahhabis came from and is what has always put the more cosmopolitan residents of the port city of Jeddah in the Hijaz region at odds with their conservative desert cousins.

In short, what I am saying, is that such a change in Riyadh is fundamental to the country -- not a freak of some isolated pocket of liberal rebellion. It may seem like a miniscule change by Western standards, but here it is a massive shift away from the overbearing religious policemen of the past who often harshly enforced strict dress codes forcing women to wear a veil.

About three years ago, I did a story featuring religious policemen in Riyadh shopping malls, just like the one I visited last night. Their job was to make sure men and women do not mix unless they are related (this particularly applied to young men) and to make sure women were covered up. I remember some expatriate women telling me they had been accosted by religious policemen and being told off for wearing nail polish in public. If they wanted to do that they were told they should wear gloves. Any woman letting her veil slip to show her hair was quickly accosted.

Last night, I saw no religious policemen in the mall. There were young, quite casual security guards who did ask us what nationality we were before allowing us off the street into the mall, but nothing overbearing.

Women, particularly older teenagers -- maybe as many as one in five -- were walking around chatting and window shopping arm in arm with female friends, their hair permed, wavy, treated, made up to look attractive. There was an energy and excitement about many of those who had taken the cultural plunge to unveil so to speak. It was clear they were having fun with this novel freedom.

Of course, not all women removed their veil, some completely covered their faces with a black scarf, others left slits for their eyes only while others kept their veil over their hair but allowed their faces to be uncovered. Choice is still driven by family values.

It was also noticeable that while there were plenty of young women in the mall, there were relatively few young men. As recently as the year before last, I spoke to a young man who had been chased out of a mall by religious police as he and his friends had sought to meet girls. It was for him a huge frustration that there are no places where young men and women could meet legally.

But what I do detect in this new relaxation of religious interpretation is the first major softening of Saudi Arabia’s harsh image. Is it far enough? Is it fast enough to meet the expectations of the country’s booming young population? (More than half have been born since 1990, 75 percent are under 27.) I don’t know. I have argued in the past it may not be.

I was here a year-and-a-half ago when the country’s ruler King Abdullah came to the throne after almost a decade as Crown Prince and defacto ruler during the then King Fahad’s ill health. I was told the octogenarian monarch wanted to bring reforms. Now I feel like I can say I’m beginning to see them.

I don’t want to say lifting a veil or two will solve the country’s ills; it won’t. Women here still cannot vote, cannot stand for election, cannot drive, cannot go out alone. But as my elder daughter, Lowrie, studies the British suffragette movement at school in London, I am reminded that women went to prison and died to get the vote in Britain, and that change comes slowly and often at a cost.

Incredible as it may seem today, barely 100 years ago, against a very vocal conservative male-dominated opposition, wealthy women over 30 won the right to cast their ballot in elections. Only years later did women finally achieve equal voting status with men.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah faces no less conservative forces as he inches reforms ahead. He is weighted by being the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites -- Mecca and Medina -- a religious responsibility that cannot be overestimated. The concern expressed here is that if change is too fast it will backfire. Conservatives will jump on any failure to say they were right, and the king is wrong.

Beyond lifting the veil, I do see other changes. For one, it is getting easier (fumbling bureaucracy apart) to get in and out of this country. The Saudis are more willing than they have ever been to host international journalists and others. They are planning new cities to diversify the economy from one solely dependent on exporting oil, and to employ the booming population. Things are moving in the direction the West has been demanding for decades.

Change here is glacial, but there is a thaw.
If you were visiting a mall, or a section of a mall, that was for women only, then women not wearing hijab is no big deal. You fail to specify which mall you were visiting.

Any change you see in Saudi is cosmetic. You should have mentioned that numerous foreigners are to be lashed for drinking alcohol and mingling at a recent party in Saudi.

Nothing has changed.....all window dressing.
I lived in Riyadh and in Tabuk( northwestern Saudi) for about 6 years. During that time I saw many women without their veil, but there many that were fully covered. On my first contract there as a RN, I only covered my hair during Ramadan. I wore the abaya ( as it is called in Saudi) everywhere I went, but it wasn't a big deal. The next contract, up in Tabuk, I had to cover my hair at all times. But I did not wear scarves, I wore hats, white and green polka dot hats, black velvet ones with red bows..etc.. as long as they covered the nape of the neck. I found most people there to be friendly, and helpful. Of course, I was chased out of shopping malls in Riyadh, but it all added to the mystery and adventure. You can't take everything to be personal in this life. You ahve to enjoy every moment as its own adventure!
Thank you for sharing.
I've been living in Riyadh for just over 6 years and I can't say I've witnessed much of a shift. Now just as before, a woman could go without a veil, it mostly depended on her family, especially if one was from an affluent family.

Saudi essentially is still a very closed society and it will take much time and education to get over the proverbial hump.
After having lived in the Kingdom for 6 years and 6 months in Bahrain, I sincerely doubt that the women you saw "uncovered" were Saudis. They were more likely Arab women of a different nationality. Only women can change the lot of women within a country, and Saudi women are not likely to risk the consequences any time soon.
Very true..i have been living here for past few years and have friends who have lived here for 2 decades..there is acceptance to few things which previously was considered wrong...such as long hair for men... gold also is forbidden to wear for men..but now young saudis do have long hair.
The biggest change is the emergence of internet and the exposure it brings to the outside (TV) also brings in Arabic programs beamed from neighbouring countries which are less conservative.
Change is the only permanent thing ....and it is a pleasure to see it matter how slow it is...after all we are one world and and WTO and other institutions will help in ensuring a common benchmark.
Wow, that is huge. Yes, change is slow but a start is important. Kuwait now allows women to vote I believe. That is a very recent event I used to think would not ever happen having grown up in SA. Your comment on England and the vote for women is very valid. Where I am from women were required to quit their job with the municipality upon getting married because those jobs needed to be freed up for the breadwinners. This happened until 1966!! I told this story at a business lunch one day and a woman at the table backed me up by saying that she was one of those women. I am still blown away and I would have been looking twice as you did!!
This story is amazing! I spent some time in Riyadh in 1996-1998. Even as an American woman I was required to wear a traditional abiya with my head covered. I was never confronted by the religious police but I was yelled at by a motorist when I walked along the street with my hair exposed. It is amazing to see such a shift in a society that has held to these rules and beliefs for so long. I agree that it may not seem like a big deal to those that have grown up in the West but this is a big deal.
I lived in Al-Khobar and was a contrator ,conducting training at the huge Dhahran oil facility in Eastern Province from 2002 until early 2005. I'm shocked to hear of women, Saudi young ladies with out their veils and hair covering. It's true that most of the populace is under 30 yrs. old and most of the young men told me that things in the Kingdom must change. I remember the Matawa, religious police whipping them for showing any hair at the malls I visited. It appears the change has begun. Let's hope civil unrest doesn't soon follow. When women can drive and vote, then the floodgates will burst open.
I enjoyed reading that progress and more liberty are beginning to make headway albeit in small steps; going slowly and incrementally strikes me as sensible in a society where so much still needs to be reformed. If one were to go too fast, the mindset of the public would not have time to adjust and may even turn against any reform. The important thing is to keep it steadily going.
You probably were seeing the super rich family members of oil czars.Average Saudi women still must be covered and cannot drive,or get a real education.Nice try.The US is allies with the worst civil rights violators on the planet and just because you saw a few rich spoiled family members of secular oil czars does not change reality.
Nic: Hats off (or should I say veils off) to those young women who aren't afraid to show their faces and hair in Saudi Arabia! Personally, I hate to see women suppressed, they have so much to offer. I'm also glad your daughter is keeping you educated about the historical plight of women. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I enjoyed reading it.
Whether you post this comment or not, I'd like to add to my earlier post by noting that the outer robe worn by women in Saudi Arabia is referred to as an "abaya" ("chador" is the term used in Iran). Thanks.
What good news is that! It is incredible! Finally, at long last, there is light at the end of the tunnel for women of Saudi Arabia.As a Muslim woman from Sri Lanka and enjoying freedom of dress, I'm very happy for the women of Saudi Arabia.

Sri Lanka
I lived in Riyad in the early 80%, and only about half of the Saudi women I saw were veiled. The writer leaves the impression that being unveiled is Riyad is new to Saudi Arabia. It is not.
Change??? Did you miss the story, that is now somehow "buried" by the msm about the foreigners getting arrested, sentenced to lashings and prison for DANCING at a private party? Yeah, sounds like progress in the Magical Kingdom.
I think it is awful that there are women walking around without veils. It is a religious requirement in Islam,which is not interpretable in any other way. Walking around uncovered leads to immorality (oh, have all of you forgotten what that means?), which leads to unhappy families and divorce. High rates of divorce lead to the break down in society (if you dont believe me, take a good look around you, and read the news once in a while). May Allah protect Saudi Arabia from becoming the babylon that is America.
absolutely wonderful! thanks for this report, it made my day
This is very exciting!
In Islam it is required for women to wear your hair covered, but not the veil across the face. Some change could be good in Saudi Arabia like women being able to drive and women voting. But if young girls are running around with their hair uncovered this is a sin. The West is influencing the young people of the Muslim countries and bring them down to the shameful standard of their morals.
As a Muslim woman in the WEST who UNDERSTANDS the importance and significance of The Islamic code of dress, I see the unveiling of the women in Saudi as a naive attempt on their part to gain some false form of liberation. One has to only look to the west especially the US and see the societal ills free mixing of men and women, and an overall lack of morality has burdened the nation and is unfortunately being exported throughout the world. I say let the women of west keep their so called liberation,their stds, fatherless children, and depression, along with this ignorance-driven superiority complex, and Saudi Muslim women keep your veils on.
I don't believe it. I lived in Saudi Arabia in the 80's and they were so strict about that. I'm sure we'll be seeing some pictures soon.
I hear some of these malls are owned by powerful Saudi princes who pressured the religious police administration to keep their malls off limits for the policemen. You are correct that the religious administration is getting weaker to submit to this pressure.
I just want to say that Nic Robertson is one of the most amazing foreign correspondents and his understanding of the Middle East and the cultures present in that region is impeccable. Thank you for all of your amazing reporting.
I find generally the press holds certain groups to afully low standards and other to incredibly high if not impossible ones based on a simplistic formula based on percieved victimization.

But the real error in this essay is the specious comparison to change in the West and that in Saudi.

Is the author aware that England put down the slave trade in the early 1800`s and that slavery was only officially outlawed in Saudi Arabia in the 1960`s?

Any decent person is happy to see progress and reform, and I hope that the author is correct in this regard.
Its about damn time Saudi Arabia.
i think this is a great, but minor change in saudi arabia, i am a muslim,but i reject saudia arabia's laws and strictness.... i'm glad women are a little freeer than before
Glad to read this article. It's high time the Saudis give more freedom to their citizens, especially women. They should allow more freedom of expression and recognize that there also other religions in this world. Draconian measures like beheading should be stopped and courts should follow the western methods of holding fair trials.
its about time people recognize them selves in this country and also recognize eachother rather than cover up their faces and hide themselves while in public...progress
Seeing the lifting of the veil as a sign of 'improvement' only shows your ignorance of Islam.

God has ordered believing women to veil themselves. If they know God's command and disobey it, it is only their loss, never their gain.

By the way, Islam granted women the right to vote 1400 years ago. Be sure not to confuse culture with religion.
You mention that King Abdullah became King a year and a half ago after almost a decade as Crown Prince. In fact he was Crown Prince since 1982 so that would give him about 23 years as Crown Prince.
Very interesting news ! With my wife we are close to move for about 3 years to GCC, living in Bahrain and mainly working in Al Damman/KSA. As she will also be professionally active, we would really appreciate getting some advices and tips regarding rules, regulations, dress-cose....Many thanks. Peer Kroener.
Israel has the right to renovate or fix anywhere within the State of Israel. This is their land, the promissed land. The Muslims always know how to make riots no matter what. If it's a cartoon they don't like, or if the Pope didn't speak to their liking. It's time to put a stop to it and make them understand that they don't rule this earth. You cannot accomodate them whenever they start with threats and demands. This is what created terrorists.
Nic's observations are encouraging but some of the later commnents are not if they are accurate. How lucky some of are not to live in such an oppresive place. But Big Brother is broadening his scope in many other places too.
I'm always amazed by the responses to a news item. We get the poor soul living in Las Vegas who claims removing the veil would make Saudi Arabia "a babylon that is America." I question the Babylon reference, but most especially there is a significant hilarity in that this lady of strong Islam faith is living in Las Vegas. I doubt if the Amish would live there and they're not Muslims.
Then we get some off sided Muslim hate rant by a lady in New Jersey about Israel which has nothing to do with the discussion at hand.
I have recently returned from the Arab Emirates, and I believe that their extraordinary advance into the 21st century (and 22nd century) has had an impact on Saudi Arabia. The Emirates are betting on the day when their oil revenues will diminish and they are successfully diversifying to other greater revenues. Their women are active in all venues. and some wear the abaya,some the veils, some western clothing, but what is so significant is freedom of choice. I felt so liberated I bought my own gorgeously decorated abaya and I'm not even Muslim.
If women in S.A choose to go out without their veil, then i think it is their prerogative. Nobody should have a control of another but they can still input their religious thoughts in a simple manner.
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