BEIRUT: The dominant image of Saudi Arabian women in the world isn't particularly positive. Nor is it comprehensively informed. Ask a random sampling in the West or in the more liberal corners of the Arab world about what they know of Saudi women and you're likely to get two recurring and ultimately adolescent replies - they're covered in black, they can't drive.
It is the gross simplicity of this image that writer Mona Almunajjed strives to correct, complicate and contradict with her new book, "Saudi Women Speak: 24 Remarkable Women Tell Their Success Stories." Just published by the Arab Institute for Research and Publishing in Amman and Beirut, "Saudi Women Speak" contains 24 interviews with 24 women who have a lot to say, indeed. The book clocks in at 260 pages and the revelations both on and between the lines are many.
Almunajjed opens with a concise introduction to Saudi history, the rights of women in Islam and their status in Saudi society today. She courses through a brief but crucial narrative of community development and social reform in the kingdom since 1960, and ends her preamble with a set of light yet forceful prescriptions for how those reforms should move forward - make the education system more responsive to the labor market, allow equal access to information and technology, forge partnerships between the government and nongovernmental organizations to promote women in the workplace and slowly dismantle the obstacles that bar women from participating in public life by insisting, at home and in early schooling, that women's emancipation and Islam are in no way mutually exclusive. New policies are needed, argues Almunajjed, and they must accept the fact that women, like men, are vital agents of change in Saudi society.
All 24 of the women profiled in "Saudi Women Speak" are pioneers in one way or another. Eight of them are members of the Saudi royal family, including the late queen, Iffat Bint Mohammad Bin Abdullah al-Thunayyan, whom Almunajjed interviewed before her death in February 2002.
Queen Iffat moved to Saudi Arabia from Istanbul in the 1930s. At the time, there were no schools at all for young women, and no place for her daughters to seek an education except at home with a private tutor. So Queen Iffat established a pilot school for boys in the 1940s and opened the first orphanage for girls, Dar al-Hanan (House of Affection), in the 1950s. A decade later Dar al-Hanan spawned schools offering elementary, intermediate and secondary education. By the 1970s, Iffat was building the kingdom's first community college for women.
As valuable as Almunajjed's facts are her question-and-answer sessions with her subjects. These conversations cut through flowery linguistic elegance and ritualized small talk to pierce the issues at hand. "Human beings," says Queen Iffat matter-of-factly, "should know how to use their brains."
Among the other characters profiled in "Saudi Women Speak" are Hayat Olayan, a businesswoman on the Olayan Group's board of directors; the painter Safeya Binzagr; Princess Fahda Bint Saud Bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, president of the women's welfare association Al-Faisaliyah; jewelry designer Ebtissam al-Gossaibi; the kingdom's first female cardiologist, Hoda al-Khateeb; the banking sector's first female branch manager, Munira Abdul Latif; textile expert Laila al-Bassam; and Aisha al-Mana, a hospital director and the first Saudi woman to earn a PhD.
Almunajjed's interview with Mana illustrates where the strengths of "Saudi Women Speak" lie. Their conversation is sharply critical but constructive enough to build on - and avoid causing offense.
When Mana returned to her native Khobar after studying in the US, she couldn't land a decent job. She eventually found her way into the Ministry of Social Affairs but was frustrated by the bureaucracy there, which had been imported, wholesale, from the Egyptian state system. She eventually established her own company, Al-Khalijiyah for Development, which endeavored to add computer training to the education of young women. Despite her efforts, Mana declares the project a failure.
Still, one of the best and most lively anecdotes in the entire book ends Almunajjed's conversation with Mana. Just before the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1991, Mana and 47 other Saudi women staged a peaceful, silent protest against the impending conflict by getting into 14 cars and driving them around in circles through the streets of Riyadh. Mana and her co-conspirators wanted to prove that women require mobility - even more so in times of war. Because women really aren't allowed to drive in the kingdom, they were all fined and deposited at the nearest police station, where they had to wait for their men to come pick them up and take them home.
"We just wanted to raise an issue and to bring it to the surface," Mana tells Almunajjed.
All told, Almunajjed's book doesn't cut across class lines or cover the full breadth of Saudi society. She emphasizes a generation of relatively privileged women who have been the first to succeed in a variety of professional, artistic and philanthropic fields. They haven't all had an easy time of it, and they are forthright in tallying their grievances. While the overall vibe of the book is positive, Almunejjad's interviews illustrate a daunting agenda of work that remains to be done.
That said, if Almunajjed's is ultimately a taboo-busting book, then her approach is stealthy and subtle. She asks her subjects for their opinions on Saudi men, about their daily lives, their schedules, how they manage their time, what they think about what they have achieved and the advice they would give subsequent generations.
Had Almunajjed delved into racier topics, "Saudi Women Speak" might have been a runaway bestseller, a grown-up version of "The Girls of Riyadh." But then again, it's unlikely any of the women included here would have agreed to talk. As it is, Almunajjed's book marks the first time these women have granted interviews to be perused by a reading public.
Almunajjed - herself a Saudi woman - spent years working on "Saudi Women Speak," her third book after "Women in Saudi Arabia Today" and "Meaning and Significance of Arabic Names for Girls in the Arab World." An artist and writer who has also worked for several agencies within the United Nations, Almunajjed traveled all over Saudi Arabia to speak to her subjects in person and within their milieux. She interviewed them for hours, transcribed her notes, translated the texts from Arabic to English and returned to each woman for her final approval. In other words, it was a carefully calibrated process.
The payoff shines through in Almunajjed's interview with Adelah Bint Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, daughter of the current Saudi king. The Beirut-born princess speaks as candidly about the effect of her parents' divorce as she does about the need to overhaul her country's education system and introduce further reforms and allow more women to work.
"I am only one part of this whole society and I am presenting my point of view," she says. "However, we cannot go back. We need to become more liberal and we need to change."
Mona Almunajjed's "Saudi Women Speak: 24 Remarkable Women Tell Their Success Stories" is published by the Arab Institute for Research and Publishing