JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — Roughly two years ago, Rowdha Yousef began to notice a disturbing trend: Saudi women were using the Internet to collect signatures and organize meetings pushing for such freedoms as the right to drive, to choose whether to veil and to take a job without a male relative's permission.
The final straw came last summer, when she read reports that one such campaigner, Wajeha al-Huwaider, had demanded to cross the border with Bahrain using only her passport, without a male chaperone or a male guardian's written permission.
Huwaider was not allowed to leave the country unaccompanied and, like other Saudi women campaigning for new rights, has so far failed to change any laws or customs.
But Yousef is still outraged and since last August has taken on activists at their own game. With 15 other women, she started her own campaign, "My Guardian Knows What's Best for Me." In two months, they had collected more than 5,400 signatures on a petition calling for such demands to be rejected and punished.
Yousef's fight against the would-be liberalizers symbolizes a larger struggle in Saudi society over women's rights, a surprisingly open discussion in a normally closed society. But neither the substance of the debate nor its participants fall along predictable lines. Although many Saudis support rigid separation of the sexes, there are hints that King Abdullah cautiously supports increasing freedoms for Saudi women. And many Saudis dismiss as simplistic the Western argument that women are entitled to more rights.
Yousef, 39, is a divorced mother of three (ages 13, 12, and 9) who volunteers as a mediator in domestic abuse cases. She is a tall, confident woman with a warm, effusive manner whose conversation over Starbucks lattes ranges from racism in the kingdom (Yousef has Somali heritage and calls herself a black Saudi) to her admiration for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Every Saudi woman, regardless of age or status, must have a male relative who acts as her guardian and has authority over her in a host of legal and personal matters.
Yousef, whose guardian is her elder brother, said that she enjoyed a great deal of freedom while respecting the rules of her society. She noted that, unusually, she had retained custody of her children up through their 18th birthdays. She founded her guardianship campaign unassisted, enlisting women in her circle of contacts as fellow founding members.
To an outsider, Yousef's effort — petitioning King Abdullah to disregard calls for gender equality — might seem superfluous. After all, Saudi women still may not drive or vote, and are obliged by custom to wear the floor-length cloaks known as abayas, as well as head scarves, outside their homes.
Women may not appear in court, and though they may be divorced with brief verbal declarations from their husbands, they frequently find it very difficult to obtain divorces themselves.
There are women-only stores, women-only lines in fast food restaurants, and women-only offices in private companies.
There are a few places where men and women do work together: medical colleges, some hospitals, a handful of banks and private companies. But the percentage of Saudis in such environments is minuscule.
Where conservatives like Yousef see Western meddling, liberals say that Saudi society itself is changing.
The king has appeared in newspaper photographs alongside Saudi women with uncovered faces, unimaginable until very recently. Last year, he appointed Norah al-Fayez as deputy education minister for girls' education, the first time a Saudi woman had gained such rank. Saudi schools and colleges remain rigidly segregated by gender, and last September's opening of a co-educational post-graduate research university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, was hotly debated, even if only about 15 percent of the nearly 400 students at Kaust, as it is known, are Saudi.
In what was widely taken as a signal of the king's defense of his project, Sheik Saad al-Shithri, a member of the Committee of the Higher Ulema, the kingdom's highest religious body, was fired last October after criticizing gender mixing at Kaust on a television call-in show.
Two months later, Sheik Ahmad al-Ghamdi, the head of Mecca's branch of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, caused a sensation when he told the daily newspaper Okaz that gender mixing was "part of normal life."
In February, Sheik Abdul Rahman al-Barrak, another prominent cleric, issued a fatwa stating that proponents of gender mixing should be killed.
Whether it is the king's support, or simply the ever greater availability of digital social networks, campaigning is mushrooming on both sides of the women's rights divide, although Yousef's effort is among the few conservative ones led by a woman.
Still, even the most optimistic say that change will be slow. Hatoon al-Fassi, an assistant professor of women's history at King Saud University in Riyadh, explained that even the hint of breaking the taboo on gender mixing had been traumatic for many Saudis. "People had lived their whole lives doing one thing and believing one thing, and suddenly the king and the major clerics were saying that mixing was OK," Fassi said.
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