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Status of Women Evolves Slowly in Saudi Arabia

Kuwaiti women rather than US soldiers are seen as the best model

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IT was supposed to be a collision of cultures: thousands of jeep-driving, rifle-toting, United States servicewomen showing their veiled Saudi sisters the way to the 20th century. But nearly three months after US soldiers began assembling in the Saudi Arabian desert, American ways have hardly made a dent in the armor-plated traditions of this technically modern but socially conservative society.

To be sure, the huge Western presence in a country so long isolated has forced such issues as women's rights to the surface. But if the status of women is to change, many Saudis say, it will be for internal reasons and not because of external pressure.

``It's a jarring event'' says economics professor Walid Hashem, referring to the Gulf crisis, ``but it's not jarring our beliefs and culture.''

The slow-motion changes that have affected the status of women in Saudi Arabia began in the 1960s, when formal education was first provided for girls.

Since then, a generation of women has passed through the university system and into the limited job market available to them.

Faced with the stark implications of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Saudi leaders have carried the process a small step further, opening the way for women volunteers to learn nursing and basic civil defense skills needed to cope with a possible wartime emergency.

Many women are now hoping that the Gulf crisis will begin to do for Saudi women what World War II did for American women.

``Now that you are in a crisis, you have to tap everybody,'' says a university professor who teaches in the segregated women's division of one large Saudi university. ``Once women become involved, it won't be easy to send them home.''

Saudi Arabia has long been insulated from war and economic hardship, the two catalysts that have driven women out of the home and into the workplace in most other countries.

The strict brand of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia has largely confined women to the domestic sphere, closing off most career opportunities and even denying women the privilege of driving.

``This is the custom and they accept it,'' explains a young Saudi businessman.

``Fields like engineering are not suitable for a women because they involve hard work. Women are not physically strong enough. I'm sure the women are happy that way,'' he adds.

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