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Meager Progress in Saudi Arabia

From an AP article by Jim Krane on

DAMMAM, Saudi Arabia Feb 20, 2006 (AP) A minor revolution has spread to this sprawling oil town, with six women running this week for seats on the local chamber of commerce in this deeply conservative country where Islam dictates strict segregation of the sexes. Al-Edrisi and her colleagues in the Eastern Province, home to the world's richest oil fields, have climbed aboard a very small bandwagon. In an unprecedented November chamber of commerce election in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia's second-largest city, a pair of businesswomen became Saudi Arabia's first female elected officials. Women are still banned from running or voting in municipal government elections, Saudi Arabia's first democratic experiment, which started last year. Electoral officials have said women might gain the right to cast ballots in political elections in 2009. Saudi women lack many rights taken for granted in most of the rest of the world. They are not allowed to drive or to work in the same offices as men. Their ownership of businesses has, until recently, been restricted to ventures like hair salons, boutiques and spas. Al-Edrisi, a clothing importer, says the kingdom's future depends on women joining public life. But she also believes Saudis won't tolerate rapid change, noting the chaos in Iraq after U.S. forces ousted Saddam Hussein. "Iraq is horrifying for all of us," Al-Edrisi said. "We don't want upheaval no matter how much we want democracy. Stability is not overrated, especially in the Middle East." But pressure for change is everywhere, including from the Bush administration, which Al-Edrisi says harms their cause by identifying it with America.

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