Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

'London Gives Me Freedom I Would Not Find at Home'; Andrew Gimson Meets Members of the Saudi Arabian Community

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

'London Gives Me Freedom I Would Not Find at Home'; Andrew Gimson Meets Members of the Saudi Arabian Community

Article excerpt

Byline: ANDREW GIMSON

SAUDI ARABIAN women are easier to interview than Saudi Arabian men.

While the women approached for their opinions immediately said yes, the men tended to be extremely reticent, and often suggested it would be best to apply for an interview with the Saudi ambassador.

Dr Mai Yamani personifies the growing independence of Saudi women. After becoming the first woman from Saudi Arabia to get a PhD from Oxford she moved to London, where she works on the Middle East programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Asked how she finds it here, she said: "I love living in London. I love my work. I love the freedom of expression. Here I can share with other Arabs and Muslims in a freedom one would not find in our country. I'm independent, I'm here in my own right and I have my own profession."

Dr Yamani pointed out that in 1995, 55 per cent of university graduates in Saudi Arabia were women, but 95 per cent of women there are unemployed, because most jobs are regarded as unsuitable for them. A considerable number of these women graduates studied in Britain and two of them readily agreed to be interviewed in a coffee shop in north London.

Unlike Dr Yamani they wore headscarves which covered their hair and necks, though certainly not their faces. Sultanah, a sociologist, said that two days after the attack on the World Trade Center, "I had a call from family and friends in Saudi Arabia saying look, Sultanah, you can take off your scarf ".

The religious authorities had ruled that isolated Muslim women who might be in danger could avoid identifying themselves in this way.

Sultanah's mother was crying down the telephone, begging her daughter to "give up everything and come back". Sultanah refused either to return home or to change her appearance: "I laughed, I said look, even if I take the scarf off I still look like an Arab. This is not going to stop any danger for me."

Having lived here for 14 years, she does not consider herself in any danger and feels she has become a Londoner, though she is plainly devoted to her family in Saudi Arabia. She bridled at the false impression many people have of Saudi women: "Even many Arabs have this stereotype of Saudi women as isolated, untouchable, wild. …

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