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New documentary film shows Saudi women "even more disadvantaged"

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Ismailia, Egypt (dpa) - The position of women in Saudi society appears to be worsening, to judge from a new documentary film on the subject screened at an Egyptian festival Friday.

"Women Without Shadows" by Saudi director Haifa al-Mansour presents a rich picture of women's perspectives from various social strata in Saudi Arabia's eastern Ihsa region.

The film was screened as part of the Ismailia Film Festival for Documentaries and Short Features.

A laboratory technician in her late 40s interviewed for the film, Hoda Abdel Rahman, says: "The position of women in Saudi Arabia has declined as the rest of the world advances.

"In the 50s, 60s and 70s, a Saudi woman was able to go to other Arab countries, Egypt in particular, for higher education, and thus influence her society and command respect."

But now, "at the beginning of the new millennium, everyone was in favour of young women staying at home", and this reflected the deterioration.

Other scenes feature a few older women telling of their childhoods when they were able move about freely without being fully covered and were able to mingle with boys living nearby.

Contemporary scenes show a boy and his elder sister talking. During the conversation, the boy says he is able to go out and do as he pleases while his sister cannot - despite her protests.

In other scenes, women criticize those who go to markets alone and bargain with male vendors, saying that they should do such errands in the company of male relatives.

Others defend the full covering expected of women, saying that gives them greater mobility within society.

But amid such challenges, stories of hope also make it to the fore. One young woman recounts how her family shunned her when she decided to take up nursing.

Her determination to work in that sector despite the resistance encouraged three other young women to make the same choice.

Interspersed with these stories accounts are the views of two religious clerics.

While one rejects outright any contact outside the family with the opposite sex, another, Abdelaziz al-Qarn, presents a more enlightened view, suggesting that women may uncover their faces, drive and engage in various activities.

However, al-Qarn retracted his relatively liberal views after pressure from colleagues, according to a postscript.

Made and released earlier this year, the film comes shortly after a debate about whether women should be permitted to drive.

A proposal that they should be given the right, made this spring by a member of the Shura Council - a consultative body on legislation - rekindled the row. Several women were arrested in the early 1990s for taking to the wheel in an organized protest.

Earlier in September, a Saudi newspaper reported rumours that women would soon become ambassadors in the diplomatic corps.

The Ismailia festival, which is in its ninth year, screens films from around the world, although it has a particular emphasis on films made by and about Arabs.

Copyright 2005 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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