Saturday, December 5, 2009

Giving Saudi women a public presence

Giving Saudi women a public presence
December 5, 2009

''DON'T stereotype me,'' says Hana Bubshait, who has the rare honour of being a Saudi Arabian woman who occupies the public space.

Yesterday this quietly spoken woman, who under Saudi law had to get her father's permission to travel alone, went to the podium at the Parliament of World Religions at the Melbourne Convention Centre and appealed to her audience to better understand her struggles.

She is not an activist in the traditional sense, but she is part of a movement in Saudi Arabia that is restless for change. It is not change as her Western audience would understand it, however.

Saudi women's quest for better legal rights, Ms Bubshait says in her frank way, comes down to taking ''baby steps''.

''Right now, I am able to work and am able to get whatever education I want. But I can't buy a house with my money unless I take a father, a brother or a husband with me to court. The court won't acknowledge me as a person alone.''

Ms Bubshait is troubled by the unfairness of it all but says this has nothing to do with her Islamic faith. ''This is not religious, this is cultural.''

Indeed, she says the Saudi dilemma is in part that many of her female compatriots don't espouse parity with men. ''Some women were raised this traditional way, and this is what they believe is right. This is what the mentality has been for 100, 200 years.''

One of the issues - for overseas media, at least - has been Saudi women not being allowed to drive a vehicle. But Ms Bubshait, who works as a policy analyst for the Aramcopetroleum company, notes that when a rumour went around that the women would be encouraged to drive, there was a societal backlash.

''Women themselves were saying, 'We don't want to drive, stop talking about it'.''

But there are bigger issues than driving that face Saudi women, Ms Bubshait says. She is certain there will be change, but only at its own tempo. ''It's going to change; it just takes patience and consistent work.''

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