Women Speak Out In Saudi Arabia

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

One woman took 60 Minutes on a tour of her house, and showed a separate entrance and living room for men. The woman said the men's living room is separated by a closed door from the living room for women. She also said that unless guests are close relatives, men and women don't sit together in the same room. It's not a custom she would consider violating.

"The society force it. And if you do something against the society, you will feel, you will have a problem," she says. "So it's better to go within the mainstream of the society, fit in, be conformist in a way, and be innovative in another way."

According to the rules of Saudi society, a woman needs written permission from a man to do almost anything: to get an education, to get a job, and even to buy a plane ticket.

Ironically, half the country's college graduates are women. But they make up only 5 percent of the work force. There are no polls on how most of them feel about their situation, but one woman told 60 Minutes how she felt. She approached us while we were filming, and asked us to follow her. Our cameraperson, a woman, followed the woman into a ladies room, where the woman removed her veil. 60 Minutes obscured her face to protect her identity.

The woman began talking to us about what she wants: "I like to drive. Here, the woman cannot drive. And I like here to have a cinema…a movie."

And then, finally, she said: "I like to be free. All people want to be free."

Gaining that freedom will be difficult. Social attitudes here are deeply ingrained. Muslim clerics preach that "women's rights" is a western idea the United States is trying to impose. And they enforce a strict social code that determines everything -- from the kind of clothing women may wear to whether they can drive.

"Woman must be given the right to drive. There is nothing in Islam, there is nothing against women driving," says al-Dakheel.

And what would the reaction of conservatives be, if women were allowed to drive? "Oh, they would hate that," says al-Dakheel.

Should women in this country have equal rights? Al-Dakheel says yes: "There is nothing in Islam against women and men being equal."

Considering her story, it might seem surprising that Rania al-Baz does not advocate full equality. A well-known television personality, al-Baz is hardly a feminist or a reformer.

"I think Saudi women live a life of luxury," says al-Baz. "Would you prefer to drive a car yourself, or to be driven? I have my own driver, and if I get divorced, my brothers have to feed me, house me, and drive me! Am I living a life of luxury? Yes I am. It's high living."

But until April of last year, al-Baz was also living a secret life – a life of physical abuse by her husband, who she says finally tried to kill her.

"He grabbed me and threw me on the ground. Then he choked me, and told me to declare my faith, this is what someone says just before dying," says al-Baz. "Then he choked me so hard that I woke up in the hospital four days later."

But instead of keeping what happened to her a secret, al-Baz caused a sensation, when a television show broadcast pictures of her injuries and she became the first Saudi woman to break the taboo against publicly discussing domestic violence.

"I am trying, as a Saudi woman, to raise the awareness of unstable men, who sees women as inferior, who resort to violence, and who are abusive to women," says al-Baz.

"God willing, I will try to make sure this doesn't happen to another woman, so I can be the last woman ever beaten."

Dr. Saleh al-Sheikh, the minister for Islamic affairs in Saudi Arabia, says a combination of factors determines a Saudi woman's obligations -- the most important of which is raising a family.

"The circumstance of women here in Saudi Arabia is a mix of tribal, social, and historical circumstances. And there is religion, too," says al-Sheikh.

Does he believe in equal rights for women?

"I believe in equal right for everyone according to their circumstances," says al-Sheikh. "Women do have rights, but they are based on our view of their obligations in life."

Women's obligations was one of the subjects of what for Saudi Arabia was an unprecedented event -- a series of discussions on the future of the country called "the national dialogue." Organized by the government, both men and women participated, including Munif.

Were they all sitting together in the same room? "No, we were not," says Munif. "Actually, we were in two separate rooms. With a television, we were able to see the men. But, the men were not able to see us. But, they were hearing our voices. And believe me our voices were very loud."

"It was really funny. They were in one room and we were in another," says al-Dakheel. "We were not communicating really together. …We hear their voice on the microphone."

"I would imagine that there were probably many people in this country who objected to even that," says Bradley.

"Yes. Sometimes, the argument was really heated in that room, and over this issue both from men and women," says al-Dakheel. "Some women were for segregation, and other women were demanding desegregation. So what you have here is really something boiling in this society. … a lot of discussions."

"Saudi Arabia is a country in transition. This country needs its time to find its footing," says Prince Sultan bin Salman, a member of the Saudi royal family. He's concerned about the consequences of the changes being discussed in Saudi Arabia.

"If the government moves too fast here, is there concern that there could be agitation, social revolution," asks Bradley.

"This has always been a government or a country of consensus. We have a consensus system here that works. It has served us well for three hundred years. Kept the stability," says bin Salman. "That's the most important thing. It's not important to have elections. It's important to have stability."

The question is how long the Saudi government can maintain that stability without participating in the debate on change. Is the government listening?

"That's a very interesting question," says al-Dakheel. "Because they are not willing to get involved in this dialogue. And unless the government gets involved in this dialogue, it will be really nonsense."