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Reporters on the Job

Undercover at Starbucks: Prior to visiting Saudi Arabia, staff writer Faye Bowers had spoken to enough Muslim women to know that they despised the simplistic stereotype most Americans have about Saudi women in veils. Keeping an open mind, and out of respect and practicality, Faye wore a black abaya- a head-to-toe outfit - while reporting Tuesday's story about women's rights.

"It offered both pros and cons," she says. "For example, the anonymity can be empowering. I was interviewing a young lady at a mall, who was fully covered, when security officers rushed up to stop me. With only her eyes showing, she gave them a look that would have withered a green plant, and told me to keep talking."

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The anonymity can also work to the advantage of a Western female reporter. "People don't know who you are and what you are doing. So, I could travel to malls, businesses, and government offices fairly easy when I was covered. In most public offices, it can be a plus. Men are so horrified at having a woman come in, they break the lines to allow you to get to the front, wait on you quickly, and get you out of there," says Faye.

But there are drawbacks for female reporters. "It's illegal for men and women to meet in public unless they're related. To meet with a chief economist, an American, at a bank, we had to arrange a trip to his office. It was illegal, he explained, for him to meet me at my hotel or in a restaurant or any other public place. To interview the deputy minister of Islamic Affairs, I had to rent a conference room in the Intercontinental Hotel - it was the only place he would deign meet with a woman."

Even at one of the great icons of globalization, Faye found a gender barrier. "Walking down the street in Riyadh one day, I spotted a Starbucks and ducked inside. I ordered a nonfat tall decaf latte. The young Pakistani working behind the counter stared back at me in horror. "Yes," he finally responded. "You can have it, if you take it with you." He made it clear that I wasn't allowed to sit inside at one of the tables - those were reserved for men."

David Clark Scott
World editor