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Woman who dares to fight for her fair share in Saudi

The rights activist Wajeha al Huwaider is respected for her courage but her bold methods alienate many.

RIYADH // She wears pink and green head scarves. She calls Saudi Arabia a "prison" for women. She writes, and talks, and protests. But nothing changes. Wajeha al Huwaider has fans among western diplomats and international human rights monitors. But in her own country, the place she cares about most, this Saudi women's rights activist is almost invisible, largely because of reservations, even among reformers, about her tactics.

For several years, Ms al Huwaider has been campaigning for greater personal freedom for Saudi women and an end to the kingdom's "guardianship" system, which gives men virtually total control over women's lives. "If Saudi Arabia wants to be part of this world they - cannot continue paralysing half of society and discriminating against them and treating them like, you know, a third-class citizen," Ms al Huwaider recently told the BBC.

Known for her blunt language in media interviews, she also favours high-profile tactics to promote her cause. In 2006, she walked along the Bahrain-Saudi causeway holding up a sign that said "Give Women Their Rights". To mark International Women's Day in 2008, she protested against the ban on female drivers with a video of herself on YouTube driving a vehicle. And in June, she sought to leave Saudi Arabia without written permission from her male "guardian" three times - but was turned back by border guards.

During a recent visit to Washington, Ms al Huwaider, 48, stood outside a subway station with a sign saying "Saudi Women Need Your Support". The divorced mother of two, who works as an educational analyst at Aramco, the Saudi oil company, defends her approach, arguing that other tactics are ineffective. "We tried to ask for our rights quietly, nicely. We wrote articles, we sent petitions. We haven't heard anything from the authorities," she told The National. "So I thought that if we can do it more in a bold way, then maybe they will hear us. And still we don't get any response. But at least the rest of the world will hear us.

"Can you imagine that for 30 years we are asking for our right to drive cars?" she said. A good number of Saudis - both men and women - agree with Ms al Huwaider and say they admire her courage and perseverance. But they do not openly join her campaign, they say, because they find her language too harsh and her tactics counterproductive. "Her determination is admirable," said Reem Asaad, a college lecturer in Jeddah who led a mostly online campaign to get female sales clerks in lingerie shops. "But I still don't think she's approached her Saudi audience in a way that is doable.

"She is demanding steps beyond what most women can do, like go to the airport [and try to travel without a guardian's permission]. We all know the results and what the consequences are going to be; they will be sent back home." Many Saudis dislike Ms al Huwaider "because they believe she is out to air Saudi Arabia's dirty laundry in front of the world", Eman al Nafjan, an educator, wrote at the Saudi woman blog. "When I asked a group of my mother's generation about her, they called her subversive, disobedient, and disloyal to her religion, family and country. They also felt bad for Huwaider's parents."

Ms al Nafjan added that when she told a group of women her own age who Ms al Huwaider was, "they shrugged their shoulders. I guess they are more aware of whatever they are currently showing on MBC 4". Ms al Nafjan herself believes that Ms al Huwaider should "be respected for her sacrifices", she wrote on her blog, but concedes that the activist "most likely - won't be appreciated and celebrated until my daughter's generation".

Many Saudi women argue that in a very conservative society, which places high value on privacy, discretion and behind-doors diplomacy, the preferred way to effect change is quiet, grass-roots activities. There is no organised women's "movement" in the kingdom, but many locally orientated groups are working to improve conditions for women. They offer such services as job training, financial assistance, computer literacy and business courses. Women also run a national programme for raising awareness about breast cancer.

In addition, women are becoming increasingly vocal about ending domestic violence, getting fairer treatment in divorce and setting a minimum marriage age. While none of these campaigns so far has resulted in legal reforms, many women say they see improvements, adding that change comes slowly to Saudi Arabia. Ms al Huwaider, however, is in a hurry. And unlike her peers, she is openly challenging the underpinning of women's legal status, which is the "guardianship" system. Under this regime, women must have permission from male guardians to travel, get an education, take a job, open a bank account and, in some instances, receive medical care.

The system is not a burden for women if their guardian - father, husband, brother or uncle - is kind and reasonable. But when he is not, a woman can be confined to her home, forbidden to work, travel or socialise with friends. The Saudi government has chipped away at the system's edges in recent years. For example, it no longer requires businesswomen with some types of companies to hire a male agent to deal with the government. It also has ruled that unaccompanied women may stay in hotels and furnished apartments.

Ms al Huwaider, however, finds the entire system unacceptable. It turns "women into prisoners from the day they are born until the day they die. They cannot leave their cells, namely their homes, or the larger prison, namely the state, without signed permission," she once wrote at a liberal Arabic website, according to a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute (Memri). In the BBC interview, Ms al Huwaider said she began to see the restrictions on Saudi women differently when she was a student in the United States. "I realised - I can do things my government doesn't allow me to do - and I should get my rights."

When she returned to the kingdom, she said, "I saw how women are complaining all the time of certain laws and how they are suffering with their husbands or their fathers - [but] they just keep complaining between each other. I said - this will get us nowhere just talking to ourselves. So I decided to start writing." In 2003, she said, the Saudi press was told not to carry her columns. Security officials have twice warned her to stop public protests, and she told a Saudi interviewer in 2007 that she gets hate mail wishing she would contract a deadly disease or have a hand cut off.

Ms al Huwaider has paid a personal price for her campaigning. After it made her husband uncomfortable, the couple divorced. "Otherwise we had a very wonderful, good life together," she told the BBC interviewer. "I still consider him a very good friend." Ms al Huwaider's latest scheme is to ask Saudi women to wear a black ribbon as a sign that "we're not happy, we're not satisfied [and] we deserve to be treated kindly".

Unlike a public protest, she explained in an interview, "I thought this is very simple. To put something on their arm is not going to cause them much trouble." She is also appealing to women in other countries to wear a ribbon "to show their support". With all her frustrations in Saudi Arabia, has she considered living elsewhere? "It's my country [and even] with all this darkness, I love it," Ms al Huwaider said.

"I have something to give. I haven't given up - Maybe I'll leave when I reach that point. [But] I don't want to reach it either." cmurphy@thenational.ae

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