House of Saud [site homepage]
homeinterviewsanalysischronologyfamily treediscussion
dr. hatoon al-fassi

A historian at Riyadh's King Saud Univerity and a crusader for women's rights, Dr. al-Fassi grew up in the 60s and 70s, a time of relative liberalization in the kingdom before the retrenchment in the 1980s. Dr. al-Fassi talks about what an ordinary woman growing up in Saudi Arabia can expect, how religious leaders preach women's inferiority to men, and why she is cautiously hopeful change is coming, but slowly. "It's not coming smoothly. Every time they are coming forward, they are going backward … some more steps." As an example, she cites the country's first elections on Feb. 10, 2005 for half of the municipal councils. So far only men can participate, but she was happy that women joined forces and protested being excluded. "We were very active in the media … This was, from our point of view, a big success, because we made a difference, we didn't stay still." This interview was conducted by producer Martin Smith on Dec. 10, 2004 in Riyadh.

In your society, how do they look at women?

As a second class to men, as an inferior to men. And she has to accept it as something given by the law of Islam.

How did you become aware of your status as a second-class citizen?

Our family was not relying only on the way that we were educated at schools or what we saw on TV and read in the media. We had a different education at home that made us very proud of ourselves and our capabilities. I can say that most women who became aware of themselves, the only way to resist the type of education and media that was surrounding us from the 70s up to now is to have a different education at home, education that will [counteract] this type of daily brainwashing.

What was going on in the schools? What were you being taught?

At the time I finished school, in '82, that was still considered moderate compared to later periods, but there were, of course, certain ways of teaching Islam that were very rigid in looking at women's role[s]. ... We grew up learning that what we are learning at school is not the real Islam, that it's only one school of thought. ... My parents were very keen to teach us about the spirit of Islam, about what is the essence of being a Muslim woman, that Islam has come to give respect to the human being, be it man or woman. All these types of teachings were given to us at home, not in an instructed way.

photo of dr. hatoon al-fassi
Our society is very good at denial. It's the official slogan or  rhetoric that denies that there is anything wrong with our society, or with our education, or our politics or women or men or anything.  We are [the] perfect society.  This was always the line.

But you were growing up in a time of relative openness.

Yeah, yeah. For example, at the time we had sports. Sports was something very legal. I entered Saudi University here in Riyadh, and I had some medals from the competitions we had in volleyball and basketball and so on. And we kept on having exercises and classes and so on until '85. After '85, everything stopped at the university. Later on, it even became forbidden at schools. It became a big debate in the end of [the] 80s to have sport or not to have [it] for women, and now it's been prohibited by the majority of the leaders of the school of Wahhabism. ... All their demands were implemented little by little, year after year. Suddenly we found ourselves following what they asked for.

It seems that there was a certain balance of powers that the state was keen to have. There were many interpretations and theories about why the House of Saud adopted this restricted understanding and demands.

Why do you think they did?

Many changes happened during the mid-80s. First of all was the decline in oil prices. [It was the] beginning of an economic problem. A country that thought they had endless [access] to money, now they have to, what do you call it? --

Tighten the belt?

Tighten the belt, yeah, something that they are not used to. Although the booming period [hadn't lasted] that long, but its effect on people and their mentality was very strong.

And during that period, there was also the challenge of the Iranian Islamic Revolution. ... Having Iran just next door, with about 20 percent of Saudis [being] Shi'a, they became empowered by this revolution in [the] eastern province. There were some movements at the beginning, early 80s, by the Shi'a demonstrating and asking for more rights, asking to stop discrimination against them in jobs and so on. The Saudis at the time, they crushed them very hard until many of them were killed and arrested. It was only the last few years that there were some references to Shi'as, and we could see some of their leaders coming on TV and the recognition of Shi'a. But the Wahhabi school of thought has always damned the Shi'as. ...

You have another challenge also from some internal movements among some liberals. There was, for example, an underground party that called itself [the] Saudi Labor Party, which was also trying to present some demands on freedom of speech, freedom of participation. But in the early 80s, there were also many of them [who] were arrested and were imprisoned and so on. ... [Then] Saudi Arabia took it on its shoulders to be part of the American politics in stopping the spread of communism. ...

There's a reputation for the House of Saud of not treating their women properly.

Yeah, yeah. And they accept it because they are rewarded by money, by power. Any woman who accepts to marry a prince, she would of course know that there will be certain consequences of this sort.

What can an ordinary woman growing up in Saudi Arabia expect? What are the limits of what she can do or can't do?

She enters school. ... For 40 years, a girl's education was allowed to be only under the supervision of religious people, people who believe that women are lesser than men, are inferior, etc. ... They would supervise the objectives of women's education, which means that they have to be a good wife and obedient wife and a good mother.

Were many subjects forbidden?

Yes, many subjects. For example, as I said, sport was not allowed in schools even at my time. I was in a private school. That's why I had the chance. But public schools didn't have the chance for the girls to have sports.

But this is something just elective. We're talking about the curriculum, the proper curriculum. There were certain subjects directed towards housekeeping and nursing, etc. And most of the [Quranic] verses that were used in different subjects were those that emphasize superiority of men and the inferiority of women. ... [They would emphasize] the fact that women were dignified by Islam and that Islam has given women all her rights, etc., etc., etc. But at school you don't have the experience of knowing that [the] rights of Islam are different from what you will find in real life. It's not until you finish high school and you start to learn more about your society that a woman would realize that reality is different from what is told at school and what is told by Islam. ...

The girls' curriculum was always, in comparison with the boys' curriculum, backward. They were not renovated until a few years after the boys had their books renovated. This in part related also to the fact that the supervision over the boys' education was done by the Ministry of Education, but girls' [education had] a different system, different administration. It was a duplicate system that was very, very weird, that went on for 40 years, more than 40 years. ...

[Later], women's education grew very largely because -- we're talking about the booming period -- people got used to the idea that girls are studying, so more girls were let into schools. And then there were demands for colleges. ...

What's the point of educating women if you can't have jobs?

The restrictions on what women study kept on going up to the higher levels. These colleges even gave degrees of Master's and Ph.D.'s. But they kept women from studying certain issues, certain subjects -- engineering, law, geology, archeology, astronomy, journalism. ... Their principal objection to it is that women should study what they can work in, and they are only good at education and health and medicine and so on. ... They are afraid that women would be competent or would be in control of their destiny of their mind, of their life, so they don't allow them anything that will be challenging to them.

And they say this is Islam.

Well, this is their version of Islam. But Islam is all over the Muslim world. It doesn't mean that we are following the only real Islam. The Pakistanis are Muslims. [Afghans] are Muslims. Iranians are Muslims. Moroccans are Muslims.

Women study everywhere. Women participate in decision making. Women can be leaders, ambassadors, ministers. Even in the Gulf countries now, we have women ministers in Bahrain, in Oman and Qatar. ...

[Wahhabis] are obsessed by adultery, for example. [They think] women are very weak and that women are the source of temptation. ... She shouldn't show anything of herself because once she shows a finger, she will turn the poor man into a wolf. These are the type of slogans that are used -- the human wolves will attack a woman once she shows any bit of her hair -- forgetting that at the time of the prophet women participated in wars, in fighting, in the market, in prayer. They sat in with the prophet. There were some women rulers. The wife of the prophet, Sayyida Aisha, guided a war.

You wrote an article about a textbook. Can you tell me the story of what happened and what were you criticizing?

Yeah. … It's about virtue. Virtue, of course, is woman. This book was published and republished, [with] many, many editions, millions of it, being spread all over the country. [It] became part of the curriculum of Islamic studies departments at universities. And we find it anywhere you go because it's even distributed free. Anybody who wants to do charity would take this book and republish it.

Well, last year it happened that this book was distributed at King Saud University with a booklet saying that it is gonna be a part of a special competition, for girls only, of university. And they'll be rewarded in jewels, in computers, and so many very fancy prizes. Right? And what was asked [of] them is to read this book and listen to two tapes and then answer the questions in that booklet. That's it. …

I tried to read it, just to read the first few pages, and it shocked me because the language was very offensive from my point of view as a woman, as a Muslim woman who's proud of being a Muslim. Here he was just trying to put down women. Trying to prove that she is inferior, to prove that she is less capable of thinking or of managing or of doing anything, or of getting to the right decision because she has [her] period or she has children or she has I don't know what. And he kept on supporting his arguments [with] some verses from the Quran. …

As I said, the book and its content really provoked me. And I thought that it's my duty as a writer, as a columnist, and as an educator at the university, to do something about it. I [was] offended every time I saw the book in front of me. Even at hospitals, at entrances of anywhere you go, you would find this book. It's amazing the size it's been. And this guy who wrote it is a very important figure and is very well respected. I just couldn't believe that this is something that has been taught on a university level, or that students, university students, are asked to answer questions [like] "What are the reasons for women to be inferior?" And so on. It's very humiliating. That's why I decided to write about it. And I gave it actually as an example of some of the problems that we have in the education of women. …

Having the criticism of the book at the beginning of the story made it easier for this group of people who believe in what was written in the book to attack me. It was very harsh period, a very, very difficult period. I kept on receiving these messages on email and in the paper and on the Internet -- all the Islamist sites quoting me, or just quoting part of the whole article and adding to it whatever they think of me. And even I got a death threat, a bit. But it was amazing to see how people would defend such ideas, and how many people believe in them, even women.

What was the most offensive thing in the book for you?

The way the religion was used to prove a certain ideology that is very illogical. If you look at the book, you find that all the arguments that he's been using and trying to develop don't have any logic. But he would get to a conclusion at the end out of nowhere. … We have thousands and thousands of schools where girls are told, basically, the same thing. And what made me very upset and angry is to have women believing in such things and believing that they are inferior.

A little bit afterwards, I saw another announcement with the names of those who got the prizes. I was angry at the university as well. How could they allow such a book, such a competition, to be run [at] the university? What type of university is this? And this is the biggest university in the country.

These were girls basically who were able to recite their inferiority.

Yeah. And the details are just very offensive. He was using some scientific results to show how women are less capable than men and their brain is smaller or thinner. …

This is not so much religion as what?

I always have this theory that these type of interpretations usually emerge and get fortified in a society where men are very weak, very backward, and don't have any kind of power over anything; who don't have the chance to participate properly in the politics, for example, of the society or so on. Women are always weaker physically, and they emphasize that. ...

It's a [psychological] substitute for power to have somebody to have power over [someone] in a country where you don't have any say in anything, a nondemocratic country. So woman is always the victim. ...

Let's talk about the situation of Saudi girls socially. What is happening to young Saudi women?

They have only two choices. Either they conform with the norm, and they accept the status quo -- ... this is a group of girls who will be very religious, who will be attached to religion, mostly superficially I would say, because our society, when it comes to religion, is very superficial. It gives an importance to the physical appearance of a person, man or woman. A man has to have a beard ... [and] a woman should wear the abaya in a certain way on top of the head. She should cover her face, even wear gloves or socks, black and black. [And she is] not to be in any mixed environment.

How do women meet men?

In the majority of society, they don't. Even in households, there are always separate sections for men and women. They meet when they are young until puberty, and then they have to be separated. They [might] meet illegally, or if they are rebellious or they [are from] privileged families, they would meet abroad. ...

I was talking about having two groups of women: one that conforms with tradition and the other ones who are rebellious. ... Some of them might have relationships with men over the phone, or they would meet them behind the back of their families. It happens. With the pressure [of a society that forbids all] natural, ordinary relationships between sexes, it makes it very tempting. ...

The crown prince [Abdullah] has come out in favor of women's rights. He has been encouraging women to participate more.

But yet you don't see real change.

I think the problem is the crown prince made announcements and met even with some women. He had many occasions where he met groups of women to listen to what they have to say. But there wasn't a follow-up afterwards. ... We know that he personally would be for change and reform, but it seems that there are certain balances of power in the Saudi family that don't give him the full or complete authority to maintain what he believes and/or what he wanted to [do].

The elections are a good example of how the reform doesn't go in a very stable, logical way. Last year the Council of Ministers announced that there will be municipal councils and they will be half-elected. OK. Then we waited for maybe seven months, and there was nothing happening. ... A group of stories started to leak out, and one of them was that women would not participate; only men will be part of these elections. ...

A group of women, of us, tried to make a difference this time. We'd heard that for the municipal councils, there was a virgin land where there are no residences. ... So we said, "Let's do something about it, making use of it; let it be our first step towards women's participation in decision making in this country and in being part of public life." Saudi women are excluded from public life. ... We kept on asking for more women to be allowed in ministries and in universities.

We are very weak when it comes to power. So we said municipal councils are very local political organizations; they won't provoke many arguments, we would expect, because it's a service council. We had only to concentrate on explaining to society what is the importance of a municipal council and how women are more related and can identify with its issues more than men. ...

So you're assuming that you're going to be participating in this, and then there's an announcement --

An announcement saying that women are not allowed. But the announcement didn't come as usual, [as it does] in similar situations where religion will be used or tradition will be used to ban women from participating in anything. This time the head of the committee of elections said that women legally are allowed to participate, but that we didn't have time this time. So here you have a different excuse that was considered very positive because it didn't use any sacred excuses or reasons that we can't deal with.

But the effect is the same.

Yeah, but it means that we still can negotiate. We can criticize. I can, for example, have this dialogue here on TV. I can write and still criticize their decision. If he had said, "Well, women can't participate because of religious reasons or traditional reasons," it would be more difficult, and I would have the religious sector attacking me as well if I tried to answer back or express my objection to this decision.

But nevertheless, that decision came out. I kept on fighting and expressing and giving solutions to all the reasons that were given. So here we are, still opening a new area of the way that was not accepted. ...

But they don't want you to vote.

They don't want -- I think you have disturbed them as well. The issue of women and their participation in the elections has covered up the fact that Saudi Arabia was trying to start to become democratic. It was trying to improve its image. But their position [on women] has backfired on them. Why? Because women this time did not sit silent; because we were very active in the media, in writing, in promoting our position and insisting on the fact that legally we are part of these elections. At the end, this was, from our point of view, a big success, because we made a difference, and we didn't stay still.

What was people's reaction to 9/11 in Saudi Arabia?

Well, it differed. Some of the people were very happy, and some people were shocked. There was a general shock, of course, disbelief. But there was a group of people who said: "OK, let them suffer now. Let the Americans suffer how the Palestinians or Muslims all over the world have been suffering by having war inside their own countries and houses."

I think the confusion became more with the announcement that 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudis. Most of the people were in denial. And they thought that here's Americans and the CIA trying to fabricate a different story, and on the Internet you had very different versions of what happened. ...

There was some discussion about terrorism in general. But I don't think that Saudi society was affected by 9/11 as much as when, for example, Afghanistan was hit, and here [people] started to feel [for] the [Afghans], especially with the follies of the Americans in bombing, for example, the weddings in the middle of nowhere. ... [People thought Americans] promote some ideas and some principles that they don't follow, like human rights principles and so on. And then the Guantanamo issue was another thing to make the anti-American feeling rise. ... There wasn't as much compassion with Americans as it should be in an ordinary situation.

I think the big change, the shock, in society came in May 2003, when Riyadh was bombed by Al Qaeda. It was then that Saudis started to fear that we are also part of this, or we are also part of the attacks, and we also [are] considered as infidels by our own people and so on.

And here, properly, another debate started. I remember I wrote about this issue at the time. And I was very impressed by the reaction I received, because I was insisting on the fact that we have to face our problems. We have to face the fact that these people who attacked and bombed in Riyadh are Saudis, are our youth, our sons and brothers. They are [not] expatriates. They are not CIA here. They are not Zionists. They are our own people.

It's remarkable, though, I think, to many Americans, because these events of May 2003 in Saudi Arabia aren't even that well known in America. Would you say anti-American feeling has been affected by this?

No, but it made Saudis become in touch with reality, the reality of extremism within their society.

In the education system?

In the education -- yes, that. And then education started to be criticized. Everything started to be criticized, even the role of woman and her exclusion from society and how all these extreme ways of life that we live, how they are all invoked by people who have just bombed us and who think that they have the right to even bomb Muslims and even Saudis, with the policemen and security guards, etc.

So this really begins a process of introspection that wasn't taking place after Sept. 11?

Yeah. Our society is very good at denial. It's not only society. It's the official slogan or official rhetoric that denies anything to do with the fact that there is anything wrong with our society, or that anything's wrong with our education, or anything's wrong with our politics or society or women or men or anything. We are [the] perfect society. This was always the line.

The government has always used religion to establish its legitimacy. Any time that they have feared for their security, they have invoked more religion. What is likely to be the role of government and religion in relation to one another as we go forward now?

I think [the] state is still using religion one way or another, still balancing its benefits and where it can get more from where, from liberals or from religious groups. It's politics anywhere at the end of the day. So it's trying to use all the windows that are available and that are open to them. So you would see that [for a] few months that religious people will be attacked more in the media, and some other period you'd find more liberals; for example, the three reformers who are imprisoned, and now it's been six [months] almost. ...

At the same time, you see that they keep on announcing that they are reforming education, and you have, for example, the fact that education of girls and boys was merged in 2001. That was, of course, after the incident of the fire that broke [out] in a girls' school in Mecca. This was a big step. It was a big reform. We haven't seen any big change in the curriculum -- the girls' curriculum -- but at least this shaking of this stagnant water has happened in education, and there is a possibility now to make some changes in the curriculum.

Are we moving in a more conservative or liberal direction?

In the direction of reform. It's just that it's not coming smoothly. Every time they are coming forward, they are going backward … some more steps. So the direction towards reform is not straightforward.

I think that there are many sectors of society who are not willing to reform or think that reform is against Islam, for example, or maybe it's because it takes part of their power [away] that they will keep on antagonizing it. On the other hand, you have also the different wings in the House of Saud who want to have proper reform or want to have [a] superficial one, and who are conflicting between each other, but of course [secretly].

They don't like to argue in public?

No, not at all. Not at all. Everything should be all right in front of the public. But I don't think that it's easy for them to give up their power or part of their power to the people. Yet they have to do something about sharing, give part of the share to the people.

On the economic front, they had to because of the debt, the deficit that the Saudis have -- over $700 billion. They had to sell some of the companies that they own. So here, OK, we're starting to have some sharing. But it's not proper, really, because they are still holding a lot of authority on it.

But people are asking for political participation, for participation in knowing where money goes.

They want accountability.

Accountability. Accountability doesn't exist, and neither [does] transparency. So this is what the people want. And so that's why with reform, they are very reluctant.

You don't really know what people want in this country. You don't know whether most people are conservative or most people want liberal reform or power sharing. Why not?

There are no studies. Very [few] studies are done. And most of the studies -- if, for example, the ministry wants a study to be done on what the people want or not want, at the end it will be classified. It will not be accessed except by certain people. So we don't know what is really happening.

But if you live in Riyadh, you'll see a different society and different population than when you go to Jeddah or the south or east or north. It's a vast country, and different people think differently [in] different parts, especially regarding reform.

We don't know. But the majority of people have an issue with unemployment. They have an issue with economic problems. They have an issue with education. There are not enough seats for everybody to enter universities, because this is the only venue that they have open for the majority. For the majority of graduates from schools, there's only university to go to. [There are few] institutes of craft or things of this kind, [and they are] open for men only. For girls, it's still debated. So unemployment is a very strong factor in deciding about reform and in making people react openly and react in a negative way to the status quo.

home + introduction + interviews + analysis + chronology: house of saud + a royal family tree
join the discussion + producer's chat + teacher's guide
press reaction + tapes & transcript + credits + privacy policy
FRONTLINE home + wgbh + pbsi

posted feb. 8, 2005

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
photo copyright © corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS