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Small Steps In Saudi Arabia


The government of Saudi Arabia has taken a small step toward allowing greater participation of women in public life. This month, businesswoman Madhawi Al-Hassoun signed up as the first woman to run in an election. She is vying for a seat on the local chamber of commerce in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia's second largest city. Ms. Al-Hassoun entered the race after Saudi Trade Minister Hashem bin Abdullah Yamani overruled a decision by the Jiddah Trade and Industry Chamber to reject the nominations of ten businesswomen.

This is a step in the right direction. But a great deal more needs to be done in order to raise the status of Saudi women and improve their lives.

According to the latest U.S. State Department human rights report, women in Saudi Arabia have few political or social rights. Women are not allowed to travel domestically or abroad without a male relative. In addition, Saudi women may not legally drive motor vehicles and are restricted in their use of public facilities when men are present. When riding city buses, Saudi women must enter by separate rear entrances and sit in specially designed sections. Women risk arrest by the religious police for riding in a vehicle driven by a male who was not an employee or a close male relative.

Saudi women face legal discrimination. Under Saudi Arabia's law, the testimony of one man equals that of two women. Saudi women also have a much more difficult time getting a divorce than Saudi men do.

There are some signs that the Saudi government recognizes the need to address these serious inequities. The most recent National Dialogue conference was comprised of Saudi religious and academic leaders and women. It endorsed the principle that there should be an expansion of women's roles in public life. The government-sponsored conference also called for a re-examination of restrictions imposed on women by custom rather than by Islam.

But without further action by the Saudi government, such conferences have little meaning. U.S. First Lady Laura Bush makes the point succinctly. "Women's rights are human rights," she says, "and the work of advancing human rights is the responsibility of all humanity."

The preceding was an editorial reflecting the views of the United States Government.

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