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what is or isn't still relevant today about this film?
Four longtime observers of Saudi Arabia and the Arab world talk about what has changed over the past quarter century for Saudi women and compare the Saudi situation to that of women in other Arab countries. Commenting here are: Mona Eltahawy, columnist for Asharq Al Awsat; Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations; former U.S. Ambassador to the Middle East Edward S. Walker Jr.; and Saudi scholar and activist Ali Al-Ahmed.

photo of eltahawy

Mona Eltahawy
a columnist for Asharq Al Awsat, the London-based Arabic newspaper.

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How today is this film still relevant?

I think it is very relevant because it explores in a way that many people have no understanding, just what Saudi women face in their daily life. …

In Saudi Arabia, women -- not just the usual things that we hear of, have to cover and cannot drive -- but a woman cannot go to a hospital unless she gets the signature, the written kind of approval of her male relative. She cannot leave the country unless her male relative approves her departure. She cannot file for divorce. If she files for divorce she might have to give up custody of her children.

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Just last year in Saudi Arabia a gruesome case of domestic violence came to light when a famous Saudi female presenter very courageously went public with the brutal beating at the hands of her husband. And she allowed cameras to go to the hospital and film her bruised face. He left her for dead. She is lucky to be alive. And she said, on public television and to Saudi newspapers, that "I'm showing my face so that women understand that domestic violence is something you must speak out against." She sparked a huge debate about just how safe will Saudi women be if they do speak out against domestic violence.

This case was in the newspapers, in the television. And my Saudi friends were debating it for months on end. This was one of the few instances when a Saudi woman was brave enough to step forward and say, "This is how we're treated."

So what has changed in the last 25 years?

I think one of the biggest ways that life has changed for Saudi women is they are now more educated. According to recent statistics, 55 percent of university graduates in Saudi Arabia are women, but at the same time only 5 percent of the work force is female. So while things continue to change and evolve in some areas of life for Saudi women, many have stayed the same.

I know from communications with Saudi friends and Saudi journalists that I know that they're increasingly ambitious and they do speak out against their government. And one instance maybe, a positive thing that I can point to, last year … after the Saudis finally acknowledged that Islamic militancy is a home grown problem and not something that has been brought in from outside … Crown Prince [Abdullah] launched something called the National Dialogue so he could bring together people in Saudi Arabia, intellectuals -- including women, members of the Shiite minority, liberals, reformers -- to discuss issues that were important to the country and basically to question, "How can we fight this militant trend?"

And the third National Dialogue that they held was on women. Now this was the first time ever that, on a public level, Saudis were discussing women's issues in their country. And at the end of the two or three days of meetings the women came up with a list of demands that they have forwarded on to Crown Prince Abdullah.

But again, in another instance of the more things change the more they stay the same, although this was a groundbreaking meeting in which Saudis for the first time ever discussed women's issues, an ultraconservative member of the National Dialogue team got up and chastised women who had been educated abroad and said that they were bringing to Saudi Arabia Western ideas that they wanted to infect the minds of Saudi children with.

Now, this doesn't help the debate on women's issues, and this just kind of falls into old ideas that any discussion that has to do with women's rights has to be Western, has to be evil, and is not Islamic. ...

...[I]t's important for Western viewers in particular to understand that Saudi women continue to take a stand today. And they're not asking for an invasion of Saudi Arabia; they're not asking for Western intervention. They're asking for us to pay attention to the kinds of violations that they're fighting against, and they're asking for our support. So seeing this film is one way to acknowledge these violations that they have courageously been speaking out against. ...

They have very little say in the justice system. They were only allowed to have their own identification papers just two or three years ago. The very first kind of nationwide municipal elections which took place at the beginning of 2005 were for men only.

And I do acknowledge that the Saudis have been talking about reform and are trying to set some kind of reform going in their country, because they understand the importance of reform in this kind of growing Islamic militancy. But even in this first instance of kind of baby steps towards elections and democracy, women were barred. And it makes no sense to me as an Arab Muslim woman. Why, in the year 2005, do you only allow half of your population to take part in that reform and then present it to the world as, "Look, we're reforming; we do believe in democracy."

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Isobel Coleman
Director of a Council on Foreign Relations initiative on women and U.S. foreign policy.

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... The change for women has been so dramatic. In one generation the literacy rate for women has gone from 2 percent to over 90 percent. It's a huge change. It was only in the 1960s that girls started to go to school in Saudi Arabia. And so you're talking about huge social change, huge economic change, which we all know about. And the film captures it at a point in time where it was very traumatic for the country. I think it is still traumatic today.

I think the stereotypes of the women in the film may have been caricatures at the time, to some degree, but also perhaps not incorrect. I'm sure that there were women who led incredibly sequestered lives as those women are shown in the movie to have, and quite frivolous lives. But having just returned from Saudi Arabia, I met with women who run businesses, women who are deans of colleges and universities, women lawyers, women doctors, members of the royal family, women who are more like to a dean from Oxford than to be sitting around like the princess in the film, just listening to music and smoking. ...

When one looks at this film now, with the eyes of 2005, what can one draw from it? How does it remain relevant in some ways, today? And what does it tell us about affairs in Saudi Arabia that perhaps we have been a bit blind to?

I thought the film was remarkably relevant still in some ways. It was interesting to see how the juxtaposition of Saudi Arabia, say, versus the more freewheeling environment of Beirut is still [relevant] today. The property prices in Beirut have been driven sky-high by Saudis who look at Beirut now post-civil war as a local playground in some ways and a nice spot where they can get out of the more restrictive environment of Saudi Arabia and own a seaside villa and enjoy the freer atmosphere in Beirut. So that still exists today.

I was in Saudi Arabia when [Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik] Hariri was assassinated. All the conspiracy theories that the Saudis still today are talking about, and the role of Israel and the United States, and again, that's apparent in the movie 25 years ago. Some things seem to be so similar today as they were 25 years ago. …

I think one of the interesting things about the movie is the re-creation of this journalist's search for the truth. And you get different versions of truth. And still, today, you get different versions of truth about Saudi Arabia, because the country is very conflicted. And you get one version depending on if you speak to one person and a very different version if you speak to somebody else.

The country is going through reform, and it's really making deep changes according to some; according to others, nothing's changed, it's just simply window dressing. So I think the film is still relevant in some of those internal divisions that you see in the country. ...

… How do women deal in the society, what are the rights of women?

One thing that the movie unfortunately does is perpetuate this myth of Saudi women. And maybe 25 years ago it wasn't so much of a myth. I don't know; I wasn't in Saudi Arabia 25 years ago. But today it is a myth. It's a myth that Arab women are repressed. It's a myth that Arab women are confined to the home.

It's particularly a myth, I think, with the Saudis because Americans focus on the fact that the Saudi women can't drive and, yes, in the recent election, they can't vote. And they're forced to wear the abaya. And the Mutawa [religious police] can even come around and whack the women or haul them off to prison if they are not appropriately dressed. Okay. That's all true.

But the fact is that women are really pushing against the constraints on them in Saudi Arabia. Women are very active today in the health field, increasingly active as journalists, as lawyers, certainly as businesspeople. Somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of financial assets are owned and directed by Saudi women. Saudi banks are now catering much more to women because there's a recognition that they control a lot of the financial assets. There are some very, very prominent Saudi business women. One of the largest companies in Saudi Arabia is run by a woman, Lubna Olayan. She was just put on the board of a bank there. I mean she's a very prominent business person, forget about being a woman.

And I think there's a myth that unfortunately is perpetuated by the movie, if people see it today and if that's what they take away from Saudi Arabia today, because it's a very different situation today.

Also for the royal family? A lot of the women that were being talked about or the conditions they were living under were members of the royal family.

Especially for the royal family. The royal family consists of, I don't know, I've heard anywhere from between 4,000 and 20,000 members. I can't say that I've met even a tiny fraction of them, but those members of the royal family I have met, they're more likely to have a Ph.D. and to be running something quite impressive, be it an NGO [non-governmental organization], a non-profit organization, a dean of a college, trying to start their own business. They're doing all sorts of different things. The princess depicted in the film, I certainly haven't met anyone like that.

photo of walker

Edward S. Walker, Jr.
President of the Middle East Institute and a former ambassador to the Middle East.

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Twenty-five years later, has life changed for Saudi women? If so, how so?

Well, I think first of all, you probably need to distinguish between life in the royal family and life for women in general, because they aren't quite the same thing. But life in general for women is quite different today than it was then. Women are in business. Women are lawyers. Women are working. There is still separation in an office, but it's a very artificial separation. The women have been engaged in the National Dialogue, and there was a lot of controversy about that.

The Saudi family has said that in the next elections in four years the women will vote. We'll have to wait and see whether that happens. They aren't able to drive yet; there is still the abaya, the black robe that they wear, but there is a lot more freedom for women today -- they're able to travel more freely -- than there was at that time.

In the royal family there are still constraints, because the royal family is under the eye or the magnifying glass and so on. But within that context I think there are women who are quite influential in the family itself and do express their political opinions and do have an impact on the decision makers. …

The senior woman in a traditional Saudi family runs the family. She picks who the marriages are going to be between. She makes the linkages to other families. She's a critical part of the component of the whole. Maybe [that is] less important today because we are moving into a different kind of society. But Saudis have come a long way since 1980.

But the fact that in the last elections, the women weren't able to vote, what is the importance of that?

You can always look at these things two different ways. Many people felt that the fact that women didn't vote [in the most recent elections] was a serious deficiency in the elections. And I tend to agree. When I talked to the crown prince [Abdullah] before the elections, I was with my colleagues and we emphasized the importance of women voting. He thought it was too soon. He thought that you had to take this thing one step at a time. As he said at the time, "I'm going to take one step forward and I'm never going to take a step backwards." And each time there will be another step forward.

And now, at the same time, as I said, the women are participating and were participating in the National Dialogue. Their views are becoming known. They have been more actively participating in the economy of Saudi Arabia, in the business community in particular.

But they gained out of the election the pledge that they would vote the next time. Now, nothing is done until it is done, but that's a pretty important pledge that was made, and it will be very hard for the leaders of Saudi Arabia to go back on it. ...

But they are trying to balance between change that is important for long-term stability and is important for maintaining a popular base on the one hand, and change which can create a counter-action in the very traditional society, the society that Saudi Arabia still is, and a very religious society. So it's a balancing factor here.

And the last thing that the Saudi leadership wants to see is that they create conditions which encourage Islamic radicalism, encourage the Al Qaedas of this world and so on, because they have come to conclude that this is their primary enemy now. So it's going to be a careful process and a careful road. But I think it is [going] in the right direction.

Give us, if you can, your perspective on the wider view of the status of women in the Arab world.

Well, in many countries women have a significant role in the society. … You take a country like Egypt, for example, where women play an increasingly important part in the business community, business leaders; they are government officials. There are more -- at least there were the last time I checked -- more Egyptian women ambassadors for Egypt than we have American women ambassadors. So it is not as if there is a closed door.

There is still a tradition. There are still difficulties. You could call it a glass ceiling, to a certain extent. But hell, we've only broken through our glass ceiling, if we have even, in the last few years. And so we all have to do more to have the most efficient economy which makes full use of all of our talent.

And the reason why the Saudis lagged in some of these things in the Arab world?

I think that for one thing, the Saudis have been protected by their oil revenues. They haven't been forced to change as quickly as maybe some of the other societies because they always had this cushion. And people could be very comfortable without going out and working, and they could afford to have the drivers 100 percent dedicated to women so they can move around the country. There's been this safety net, if you will, an economic safety net. And that hasn't been true of other countries. And I think that that has made it harder for the Saudis to actually change or to have this transition from the tribal society to a modern society.

But now they're facing unemployment levels that are much higher. In spite of the high level of the oil prices, they have had a lower GNP per capita over the last years, considerably lower than they used to have. They're not able to subsidize at that level they were. They're coming to grips with this problem that a modern society, to be competitive in the world, has to make use of all of its human resources. And that's why things are going to change in Saudi Arabia and why women will have a much greater role as we move along. …

When you watched the film, was there anything that really rang true to you as something the West still needs to understand?

What really rang true to me was the overwhelming importance of family and tradition, and the fact that we sometimes miss that because we have a much more mobile society. You know, people in southern Egypt, they move two miles and they feel like they are in a foreign country. You put a person from southern Egypt up on northern Egypt and they might as well be on Mars because they don't have the sense of mobility; they don't move jobs frequently the way we do. And part of that is because of the importance of family and staying around the home and being with the family and supporting the family and so on. … They don't want to see the family disrupted, broken down as a base. They feel it's very important.

They also don't like to see immorality. They don't appreciate a lot of the Western culture, and I think there are a lot of people in this country who have the same idea.

So the irony here is that to support the family meant for a grandfather to kill a grandchild.

That's right, because again, I come back to this sense of tradition, where the individual is not as important as the family.

But I would emphasize that that attitude had changed. I don't think you would have the same situation today. The Saudis would handle it quite differently if they knew about it. I mean there is a question [about] how much the authorities in Riyadh knew what was going on. … I really do believe that this wouldn't happen today. That generation has largely died off. And there is a much different attitude today towards family members and towards love and towards education and so on than there has been in the past. So I think they would be sensitive still. They would think that you were trying to define them in terms that no longer exist, and they would think that was unfair. …

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Ali Al-Ahmed
A Saudi scholar and activist.

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… In 25 years, some things have changed in Saudi Arabia. Explain what has changed.

I think the society's progressed. … Women now are more educated, either inside or outside the country, although they are barred, for example, from studying journalism or engineering and other specialties. But they have progressed, and they have made great strides in business, especially outside the country today.

The most famous Saudi women are outside Saudi Arabia in the U.N. or as writers or analysts and so on, or businesswomen. Inside Saudi Arabia, there are great limitations on their progress. Their status didn't change. The fact that they are not allowed to enter court even if they are accused of murder, for example -- a woman will be sentenced to death if accused of murder without her being in the court or being able to speak in that court.

… Women cannot drive, cannot vote, cannot buy or sell property. A man has to do it for them. They cannot travel on their own. They cannot decide if they want to get married. The father has to approve or the brother or the son has to approve. Registering in college, accepting or applying for work is still the same; It is subjected to a man. And they still do not have the right to obtain, for example, ID cards without the approval of a man. So there are a long list of freedoms that women around the world enjoy. In Saudi Arabia they are subjected to approval of a man.

I think women in other Arab countries have many freedoms that Saudi women do not have ….

You wrote that, in fact, women to some extent are the line in the sand between modernization or remaining a medieval kingdom.

It's true. You know, you cannot really go forward and progress as a society when 50 percent of your population are oppressed. And it is the tipping point. This is the line you have to cross. It's the frontier we have to conquer in order to tell ourselves we are walking straight.

This is, to me, like a man walking with half his body paralyzed. This is our society, a paralyzed society, because half of it is not moving and the other half is trying to move. But we are dragged back by [the fact that] half the society is paralyzed, and this is not going to change internally. External help must be offered, especially from the United States. …

The role of women in Saudi Arabia is in some ways a concession to the religious conservatives who are so important in propping up the royal family, correct?

The religious conservatives in Saudi Arabia consider women one of their most important issues. They are obsessively concerned with women. The royal family uses these extremists to suppress society and to preoccupy them with fictitious issues from, "How long is your beard?" [to] "Can I say 'bye, bye'?" I'm not kidding, "Can I say 'bye, bye'? Is it okay to say 'bye, bye' instead of 'salaam'? Is my robe longer or shorter?"

So they figure out that if you make women an issue, then you have 50 percent of society paralyzed and part of the other half concerned, obsessed about suppressing the 50 percent. ... The conservatives of Saudi Arabia feel the need to control society and guide it, and they use women as a means to control that society. And that pleases the royals, who would like a society that's obsessed with long beards and short robes rather than a society focused on equal rights, democracy, human rights and education and so on. …

An important idea from the film is this discussion of the "Arab dilemma." They are struggling to find a balance between ancient tradition and modern life, modernity. Does this dilemma still exist?

I think that dilemma is manufactured. I don't think any society will lose its culture by having democracy, by having openness. I really think cultures usually become stronger with exposure to other cultures. Islamic culture has been always exposed to the Indians, the Persians, the Greeks. So it's nothing new, us dealing with others. We have used the Greek books to develop our own sciences in Islam. We have used the ideas of Western or Persian thinkers. Most Islamic thinkers in the past were Persians. Those who recorded the tradition of the promises of Mohammed, most of them were Arabs. Most of them came from Central Asia. So it is a manufactured issue. …

The issue is they don't want us to have the same political system like they have in the West. They were trying to stop that part of the West from infiltrating our societies….

What do you believe is the most important thing to take away from this film to define what is going on in Saudi Arabia?

This film really exposed the status of women in Saudi Arabia, status that is not improved very much since the film aired in 1980. …Another issue is the issue of freedom of information. It was not a local or Arab media outlet that exposed this issue or talked about this issue. … In Saudi Arabia we needed a British film to speak about our own ails instead of an Egyptian or a Saudi or a Kuwaiti film. …

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posted april 19, 2005

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