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Divorce by Text Message? That's just one abomination...

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It probably wouldn't come as any surprise that men in Saudi Arabia are permitted to take as many as four wives.

But did you know that a man can divorce a wife by simply saying "I divorce you" three times?

Even more atrocious: a judge in Jiddah, a city in western Saudi Arabia, not long ago approved a text-message divorce. Apparently, the text version was necessary because the hubby was busy in Iraq on a jihad.

All of these detestable tidbits are courtesy of a rather amazing Saudi Arabian woman, Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a spunky divorcee who works for the Saudi Oil company, Aramco. (She is speaking at Georgetown University tomorrow night, details below.)

Wajeha is a writer, poet and activist whose work on behalf of Saudi women's rights came to my attention in an astonishing op ed she wrote for The Washington Post last summer (her writing has been censored in Saudi Arabia.) Al-Huwaider presented an appalling picture of the restrictions that Saudi women face.

Saudi women are amongst the most restricted females on the planet.

Consider for example that women cannot go out in public wearing ordinary street clothes. Instead, they are sheathed head to toe in those oppressive black abayas, which permit not so much as an eyelash to be viewed by a passerby. The reality of this dreadful garb came home to me the other day when I happened to see two women in abayas shopping at Whole Foods in downtown DC. They looked like Darth Vaders in flowing black tents.

I write this realizing full well that these women in Whole Foods apparently are freely embracing the abayas. But I wonder what combination of values, pressures and internalized oppression would make women want to dress in clothing that narrows their band of vision on the world to one that is barely as thick as a pencil? Why would they choose clothing that restricts their breathing and keeps them from feeling a breeze on their cheek, or the sun on their forehead and arms?

In Saudi Arabia, most women have no choice in the matter. Just as they have no control over their lives. They cannot drive their own cars. They can't drive because if they did, they would have more freedom to decide when and where they wanted to go, and with whom. To protest this ban on women driving, Al-Huwaider last year posted a video on YouTube of herself driving a car (she had another woman in the car filming her.) She used the drive to explain why it is so important that women be allowed to drive. (The YouTube video has had more than 186,000 hits.)

She also has conducted petition drives collecting 3,000 signatures from Saudi women and men who want the ban on driving lifted. (Many men want the ban lifted so that they don't have to drive their wives around, or hire drivers to do the chauffeuring.) The petitions have been delivered to King Abdullah, but there has been no response.

Lifting the ban on driving would be a symbolic victory. It wouldn't change life in Saudi Arabia. Even Al-Huwaider agrees. But it would ease the way into a discussion of some of the worst atrocities against women in a country dominated by religious extremism.

One of the absolute worst rights violations is child marriage. In her op-ed in the Post, Al-Huwaider told a stomach-turning tale about a 70-year old Saudi man who had recently married a 9-year old girl in Jiddah. "Her father technically sold his daughter for $4,000," Al-Huwaider wrote. "The day after the wedding night, the little girl was missing. She was found by her brother in a candy shop where she used to go to buy sweets."

When I spoke to Al-Huwaider the other day, I asked her if this is a freak occurrence. Unfortunately, she said, it is not. "Child marriage is common in villages and in places were people are not educated." And also, she said, it is common in places where people are educated, but subject to extremist religious views. Among these folks, the conventional thinking is that girls should be married by the age of 9 or 10. Oh, and they are supposed to be wearing abayas by that tender age too.

So forget sports. And riding a bike? Nope. That practice is forbidden, according to Al-Huwaider, because it might rupture the girl's hymen and thus, rob her of her virginity.
Fortunately for Al-Huwaider, she grew up in a household with a mother who was also strong, intelligent, literate and gutsy. She defied tradition by allowing Wajeha to play sports. And to do whatever it was that her brothers were doing. "Even though my mother is a religious woman, she gave us girls equal opportunities with my brothers."

Al-Huwaider studied mathematics at Indiana University in the 1980s (She was married to a Saudi man at the time.) She returned to the U.S. for a master's degree from George Washington University in the early 1990s. Her studies in the U.S. helped turn her into an activist. She began advocating for women's rights on various websites, and then wrote a column in al Watan, the largest newspaper in Saudi Arabia. Arab News discovered her too.

Soon, though, she found herself in trouble. Her husband, unhappy with her rabblerousing on behalf of women, ended up taking a second wife. Al-Huwaider had seen her father do the same thing to her mother, and she wasn't going to stand for it. She demanded a divorce.

The government, meanwhile, censored her writing. Suddenly, all of the work that Al-Huwaider submitted was rejected. But that didn't stop her activism. In August 2006 Al-Huwaider donned pink clothing and walked the King Fahad causeway between Bahrain and Riyadh. She carried a sign that read "Give women their rights." Police arrived and arrested her, and interrogated her for a day before releasing her.

Despite her arrests, Al-Huwaider considers herself fortunate. Employed by Aramco, helping to develop educational materials for the largely English-speaking workforce, she lives and works on a compound in Dhahran, in the Eastern province near the Arabian gulf. In that relatively liberal atmosphere where the workforce in largely Western, she doesn't have to wear the abaya. She drives her car to work every day.

In that setting, she continues to promote her outspoken views on behalf of women. While many Saudis naturally regard her as dangerous and subversive, disobedient and disloyal, young Saudi women praise her, and call her courageous. As one Saudi women website writer noted, "Huwaider is to be respected for her sacrifices. She had a stable life as an educated married mother and she sacrificed it for the women of her country."

On Thursday, December 3rd, at 6:30 p.m., Saudi women's rights activist Wajeha Al-Huwaider will speak at Georgetown University's Mortara Center Conference Room, 36th and N Streets. The School of Foreign Service is hosting the lecture. Al-Huwaider will speak about the atrocious conditions under which Saudi women are forced to live. Her talk, entitled "How Did Saudi Women Become Invisible People?" will present her moving personal stories of arrest and imprisonment in Saudi Arabia. She will also explain the causes behind "the disappearance" of women in her home country and address the controversial methods that offer the only hope for bringing women back to Saudi social life.

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