Change is in the air for a new generation of Saudi Arabian women. Karim El-Gawhary speaks to some of the women at the forefront of change in the kingdom
Salwa Alireza sounded self-confident on the telephone. "Come and visit me at the office any afternoon," she said, describing how to get to her office, a small advertising agency in the Saudi Arabian Red Sea city of Jeddah.
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The frosted glass door at the entrance to the office looks modern. Inside, the cool breeze from the air conditioning contrasts starkly with the heat outside. The desks, of surprisingly modern design, are not occupied. A black and yellow scarf sporting the colours of the local football team, Al-Ittihad, is draped across the back of a chair, but Salwa is nowhere to be seen; she is praying, the porter says.
But I am confused: how does the environment of an ultra- modern office like this one, which would not look out of place in London's business district, harmonise with the traditions of a society in which the call to prayer is strictly observed? And will Salwa shake my hand?
Salwa appears around the corner, hand outstretched, a 26- year-old Saudi Arabian woman, unveiled, relaxed and professional. Registering the baffled look on my face at her uncovered state, she rushes to explain: "As you can see, all windows and doors are made of glass; it would be ridiculous to spend the day taking your abaya on and off depending on who comes into the office," she explained.
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Whether it is basketball-playing Salwa or the female journalists sipping lemon juice in a café on the coast, all of these women have found their particular niche in this male-dominated society. For many of them, the balancing act between their career and the realities of daily life is nothing less than an ordeal.
"Whenever I return to Saudi Arabia after a holiday, I carry anti-depressants in my hand luggage," relates one of the young journalists at the table. Salwa, on the other hand, is more optimistic. "My generation of young Saudi city women no longer sits at home waiting for better times; they take things into their own hands."
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