Women Speak Out In Saudi Arabia

<B>Ed Bradley</B> Reports On Women's Rights In Islamic Kingdom

Recently, there's been a lot of talk about democracy in the Arab world -- most of it coming from President Bush, who has called on one Middle Eastern government after another to give more power to their own people.

That will be difficult for one of the president's closest allies –- Saudi Arabia, a bastion of conservative Islam that is home to one of the last absolute monarchies in the world -– one that is notorious for keeping a tight grip on political power.

Loosening that grip means more freedom for Saudi women, against whom there is widespread social, economic, and political discrimination. Women's rights is at the heart of calls for reform in Saudi Arabia --- calls that are finally challenging the kingdom's political status quo. Correspondent Ed Bradley reports.

What happens at the end of the day in Saudi Arabia reflects the profound role that Islam plays in the life of this country. As the last call to prayer drifts across Riyadh, there's something new in the city's nightlife: searchlights pinpointing the location of political meetings.

For the first time in 40 years, Saudis are attending political rallies and listening to speeches. It's part of the first national election in this country's history. And it comes after mounting pressure on the royal family for change.

"The most important change that must take place here in this country is to allow for the freedom of expression, for the diversity of this society to express itself freely," says Khaled al-Dakheel, professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, and a leading reformer the government banned from writing a newspaper column.

What did he say that got him banned? "It was the pattern of my writing," says al-Dakheel. "Too much call for reform and too much questioning of official positions… This government does not like you to be so daring in questioning the policy."

The policy in Saudi Arabia is decided by the de facto ruler of the kingdom, Crown Prince Abdullah. Twice a week, Saudis can line up to have an audience with him at the palace -- asking for his help, his advice, or his blessing. His family has ruled this country since 1932, when his father founded it.

Since then, they have held onto all political power. There's no constitution, no legislature, and Saudis who demonstrate against the government may be sentenced to public lashings. So it was a surprise when the government announced elections for new municipal councils last year.

The first stage of voting began a few weeks ago. But political parties are banned. Only men can vote, and only for half the seats. Reformers say it's a long way from real representative democracy.

"We have to have a separation of powers," says al-Dakheel. "We have to have changes in the status of women. So many things really need to be changed at this time."

Dr. Maha Munif agrees. She heads the pediatric infections unit at a hospital in Riyadh. Like millions of other Saudi women, Munif hoped she would be allowed to vote -- since nothing in the law excludes it. But after a year of debate, the government told women to wait.

"They just say that we will delay it to the next term, when the country is more ready for women to enter into this election," says Munif.

"So, the reason for women not being able to vote is that the country's not ready for it," asks Bradley.

"I think the reason that they give -- some of it are logistic, that it's very difficult," says Munif. "This is the first election and they do not really know what is going to happen. However, the bylaws are still saying that 'Citizen should vote.' And the word citizen means men and women together."

Men and women do almost nothing together in Saudi Arabia -- at least not in public. For instance, events like a soccer match are strictly for men. It's a country where culture and religion make women live mostly restricted segregated lives. In public, there are separate sections where they eat, where they work, and where they pray. There is also segregation inside their own homes.