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What Will New King Mean For Women In Saudi Arabia?


We heard Scott say that under the late Saudi King Abdullah there were baby steps taken toward improving women's rights. Saudi women are still not allowed to drive or even travel without permission from a man. But one of the steps forward came in the form of a scholarship program that allows women to study outside the country. That's how Rajaa Al Sanea attended graduate school in Chicago. She's 33 now, a dentist and a writer. We reached her in Riyadh.

RAJAA AL SANEA: I don't think that I had a very high chance of studying abroad before the introduction of King Abdullah scholarship program, which was introduced in 2005. I have an older sister who struggled much more than me to get her education abroad. The majority of us, we're only allowed to work as either teachers or doctors back in the '90s or the '80s or even in the early 2000s, but nowadays we see women working in courts. We see them working as engineers. We see them working in the media. Those are fields that have not been allowed for women back in the days.

BLOCK: At the same time, Dr. Al Sanea, I mean, we know that, as we've mentioned, women do not have the right to drive. When you leave the house, you, a medical doctor - a dentist - do you have to have permission of a man to do that?

AL SANEA: Yes. Unfortunately, I need to have a male driver, but the thing that people don't know about Saudi Arabia is that people of Saudi are really conservative. Some of us are liberal, but I would say that the majority, according to polls, are opposing women driving. And I'm not saying that those are just men. There are a lot of women who are opposing driving. The Saudi government introduced women education back in the days when people were against it. They did the same thing with TV, satellite. People were always against it for the first few years and I don't think that driving will be any different. I think that it will happen sooner or later and we're hoping that it would happen sooner rather than later. But I believe that it will not be something welcomed by everyone in the society.

BLOCK: Does that trouble you that you have to have a man driving you?

AL SANEA: Of course it does. I mean, I've studied in the states for four years and I've been driving myself for those four years. But I understand how people are very sensitive to matters related to women. When you have a discussion with someone's living in a village outside the big cities in Saudi Arabia, not everyone really supports women's rights. So we need to work on that before we implement any decisions that will create a drastic change in the society.

BLOCK: Would you expect to see any further progress on women's rights now under the new king - King Salman.

AL SANEA: It's a tough call to say. I mean, only time will tell, but I'm fairly optimistic because the ground that King Abdullah has set for women's rights cannot be taken down. So we're only going to be building further on top of that.

BLOCK: I wonder how concerned you are about a backlash from conservative Muslims from powerful clerics in the kingdom.

AL SANEA: In Saudi, we have to differentiate between the government and the Muslim clerics. The government is quite liberal and we see that with the royal family, with their daughters, with the way they drive outside Saudi Arabia. They're quite advanced when it comes to their rights, and I believe that the religious clerics represent the conservative Saudis in the streets. There's always a battle between trying to reach compensation between those two. Some of us are always unpleased when things are too conservative or too liberal, but the majority kind of work around the results of those two different ideologies. At the end, we always feel that the government is the one that wins and whenever the thing is useful for the Saudi society, just like women's education, it always wins at the end.

BLOCK: Dr. Al Sanea, thank you very much for talking with us today.

AL SANEA: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Dr. Rajaa Al Sanea, a Saudi writer best known for her novel "Girls Of Riyadh." She's also a dentist and we reached her in Riyadh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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