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Saudi Girls Show Pen Is Mightier Than Their Lords

Behind their veils, many Mideast women are testing cultural and religious barriers. A series looks at three cases.

SAUDI women who appear in public without a veil or dare to drive a car risk arrest in this oil-rich Islamic kingdom.

Unmarried couples who walk along the Corniche, a walkway along the Red Sea, and those who sit together in restaurants also hazard the same fate from the dreaded Mutawwa -- the national Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which employs cane-wielding religious policemen who sport henna-tinted beards and long white robes.

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But 25 young Saudi women, all still teenagers, are taking small steps to change this desert nation by publishing a newsletter, the first of its kind.

The Jiddah Girls Gazette is a modest but courageous attempt to vent openly the frustrations of scores of young women. Bred on American movies and summers in Europe, they know there is more out there for women than their country has to offer.

''We love being Saudi and living in Saudi Arabia,'' says Salwa Ali-Reda. ''But there are many things we would like to change.''

Despite their boldness, these women step cautiously in a country where even men refrain from openly criticizing rigid tradition.

All power is vested in the king, who is also Saudi Arabia's supreme religious leader and rules by royal decree. Saudi Arabia is known for its strict adherence to sharia, or Islamic holy law, which demands segregation of the sexes and exclusion of women from public arenas where they can come into close contact with men.

The young women hold editorial meetings in their homes. Sleek Mercedes pull up to white-washed villas and unload women shrouded in black. Once inside, they remove the abayas (black wrap) and tarhas (head cover), revealing striking outfits favored by people their age -- pants, long shirts, short boots, and vests.

They have published two issues of the Gazette so far, and a third is due out this month with more than 500 copies -- some in English, the rest in Arabic.

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The newsletter tackles a wide range of subjects, from a teenager's rocky relationship with her father to the mistreatment of expatriate housekeepers in Saudi Arabia. But mostly it underlines the daily struggles faced by this generation of Saudi women.

Privileges that women in the West take for granted are fantasies in Saudi Arabia: One story tells of a female soccer enthusiast wanting to attend the latest game who had to go disguised as a man.

''We dream of ... driving our jeep to university. We dream of switching on the TV and watching our female players on a basketball court,'' says an article by Lena al-Maeena, editor of the Gazette and a freshman at King Abdul-Aziz University.

In a land where theaters, cinemas, and female health clubs are banned, many young women spend their days sipping tea, watching satellite television (mostly American music videos), and exchanging visits.

''Most of these girls [at the university] are creative, and if they want to do something constructive, they can,'' says an article rebuking young women for caving in to apathy. ''But the problem is that they're never in the mood, never enthusiastic, and never have hope.''

Another piece entitled ''Women, Education, and Work,'' discusses career opportunities. Women's universities offer only a handful of majors and churn out graduates with very little chance of finding work. Those who do find jobs end up working as doctors, teachers, or employees in schools or banks -- for women only. Many Saudi women end up abandoning their dreams.

Walaa Maghrabi, vibrant with cropped black hair, wanted to follow her father's footsteps into a law career. But that field, like many others, is closed to women, so she is now majoring in home economics.

While they fight repression at home, they resent the Western image of Saudi women.

'' 'You're a Saudi?', '' says Rana Fatany, mimicking foreigners who have just discovered her nationality. '' 'Where's that black tent you wear? Where's your camel?' ''

The girls emphasize that they do not refuse to wear their traditional dress. ''We don't want freedom from the abaya and tarha, which are part of our tradition,'' says Badia Asaad. ''We just want the freedom to have more options.''

They don't reject the fundamentals of their religion either; they just want more breathing space within it.

''We fast, we pray five times a day. Even when we're at the beach jet skiing, when we hear the call to prayer, we go to the shore, get off our jet skis, and pray before heading back,'' adds Lena. ''Being observant and having a life outside marriage and kids is not incompatible.''

The Jiddah Girls Gazette was established after the teenagers' contributions to the school yearbook were rejected as too racy. Lena and her friends decided they would publish the articles themselves.

Working out of home on two personal computers they experimented with different programs, shading the hair of the pre-programmed picture of a young Western girl and turning it into a head cover and transforming her into the likeness of a Saudi woman.

Because it is independently published and free of charge, the Gazette has managed to escape the usually heavy Saudi censorship. Lena's previously banned story about two girls disguised as men in order to attend the national Soccer Cup finals has now reached a much wider audience through the newsletter than it would have in the school yearbook.

As eight of the girls sit in a living room over a tray of tea and sweets, they discuss ways of persuading other Saudi women to replace complaints with actions.

''Music shops in Saudi Arabia have signs that say 'No Ladies Allowed,' '' the girls say emphatically. ''Whenever we come across one, we scribble over it.''

* Monday: Palestinian women.

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