The Princess and the burqa, female driving and male guardians
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During a recent visit to Paris, Princess Loulwah al-Faisal, a prominent member of the Saudi royal family, spoke to FRANCE 24 about the accomplishments and challenges women face in Saudi Arabia.
The most prominent princess in Saudi Arabia’s royal family, Princess Loulwah al-Faisal is a champion of women’s education. A vice chairman on the board of the Effat University in Jeddah, al-Faisal is the granddaughter of former Saudi King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud - the founder of the kingdom - and the daughter of the former King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz.
She spoke to FRANCE24 during a recent visit to Paris, where she, along with a delegation from Saudi Arabia, addressed the French Senate about the changes in modern Saudi life.
FRANCE24: In Davos 2007, at a World Economic Forum panel, you created a stir when you were asked what you would do if you were queen for a day and you replied, “I would let women drive”. It’s almost three years since that memorable admission. Has there been any progress on the issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia? Is this a topic that’s up for discussion?
Al-Faisal: This has always been an issue because everybody in the world keeps asking us about it (laughs). The government’s position is not against women’s driving but they have left it to the people to decide whether they accept it or not.
No representatives of the people in majlis shura – [the consultative council of Saudi Arabia, made up of 150 member appointed by the King, six of them women] for example, they have had no demands in that area. The majority, from what I know, is still against giving licenses to women. In some cases, I think because the driving is so bad in Saudi Arabia (laughs).
But personally, I think that a woman should be allowed to drive because there are more and more women in the workforce in Saudi Arabia and there are many families living on the pay that these women bring in. She has to spend a big percentage – I can’t say a big percentage, that depends – but quite a percentage of her salary, to hire either a driver or a limousine service that we have, where several women get together and they do a pool - they hire a car to take them to their jobs and bring them back. Or the husbands or the fathers or the brothers lose a lot of man-hours just to transport their female relatives.
So, it’s just not practical. Driving is a practical medium. It’s a transportation issue. People seem to put some sort of...I don’t know...extraordinary philosophies into driving. It’s not. The car is a tool. It takes you from one place to the other.
FRANCE24: So, you see this not so much as a women’s issue, but an economic one?
Al-Faisal: Certainly, that’s it. It’s no different from any other economic progress that we’ve had in Saudi Arabia.
FRANCE24: At the conference in the French Senate, some high-profile Saudi women talked about how they were encouraged by extraordinary parents and spouses. I’d like to ask you what happens to Saudi women who do not have progressive male relatives. I’m wondering about the system of male guardianship in Saudi Arabia. It often surfaces in human rights reports on the kingdom. Is this an issue that is being discussed or negotiated in Saudi Arabia today?
Al-Faisal: It’s always being discussed in Saudi Arabia since we entered, how do I put it, a new mode of living. In the cities, women are working everywhere, it’s always discussed. And it always comes back to the same thing. The government has encouraged all women to find any work to be able to put your child through school, to have your own bank account - you have to have an identity card of your own, not your husband’s identity card. In Islam, this is the law. Wealth is yours, no one has the right - unless you give them a legal document signed and witnessed that you give this person the right to do your work.
There are families, as you said, who accept it, there’s no problem. Other families don’t accept it. Until those families change their minds it will always be there. In Saudi Arabia if you wish, nothing is enforced, but it has to come from the people themselves. You cannot force a people to do something in spite of themselves. They have to believe in it.
FRANCE24: And is there a means to express the people’s will?
Al-Faisal: Oh yes. There is the shura, the King’s house is open to everybody, we have the ministers, we have women in responsible positions, there are no restrictions on conveying your wants. Believe it or not, there is consensus in Saudi Arabia, maybe we don’t go to the voting booth, but there is a system of consensus in Saudi Arabia, our own way of doing it.
FRANCE24: Let’s talk about your personal relationship with France. You’re here in Paris, you speak fluent French...
Al-Faisal: Well I finished my studies in Switzerland… so, I have a high school degree in French...I like Paris, I’ve always loved Paris. I have an apartment in Paris, and if you wish, this is my second home. When I’m traveling, I always have to come through Paris because I leave most of my winter clothes here as I don’t really need them in Saudi Arabia (laughs).
FRANCE24: Talking about clothes, there’s been a lot of discussion about Muslim women’s wardrobes here. I’m sure you’re aware of the ongoing discourse about the burqa in France and the recent moved to ban the burqa in public institutions. What’s your opinion about it?
Al-Faisal: I think this is a choice that has to be made by the French. No one can think for the French. It is their decision. If you’re asking me about us, for us, it’s the norm in Saudi Arabia.
The burqa for us is the veil that only the eyes show. As you see, this is the way we dress in Saudi Arabia, the veil and everything. In Islam, the veil is required to cover the head. The face is still under discussion in different countries, under different schools of thought, but I have the freedom to choose for myself whether I’m going to cover my face or uncover it. I think that’s up to the French to decide what to do amongst themselves.