Madawi al-Hassoun meets me in a hair salon she owns in one of Jeddah’s trendiest malls in the fancy al-Hamra District. It is the end of the day, and the salon is packed with women getting pedicures, haircuts, styling, makeup, and all sorts of other treatments. Madawi herself is in the middle of a hair treatment. Her long, dark tresses are swept up on top of her head and marinating under a shower cap. I know Madawi has adult children, but she looks many years younger than she must be. Her dark eyes and dramatic, Cleopatra-like eyebrows accentuate her beautiful face. Madawi reigns over the salon like a queen, greeting everyone and constantly directing her staff.

Wearing just a long white terry-cloth robe, she thinks nothing of taking my arm and steering me out of the salon to stroll confidently around the mall, showing me the different shops and her other enterprises. This floor of the mall is “ladies only,” so perhaps it is not surprising that it has a definite sorority feel to it. Gaggles of Saudi girls, sporting a full array of fashion-forward abayas—including Goth abayas with skulls and crossbones down the front—gather at the cafés, texting on their cell phones constantly. In a land of strict gender segregation (some call it gender apartheid), most Saudi malls have a ladies-only area sealed off from men where women are free to remove their abayas as they shop or, in Madawi’s case, to even stroll in a bathrobe.

Madawi al-Hassoun is one of Jeddah’s more prominent female entrepreneurs. She runs a string of upscale salons and boutiques selling home furnishings, fine objects, and antiques, which she started in the mid-1980s. Born in Jeddah, she learned business at the feet of her father, who started out cleaning mosques but later moved into drilling wells for drinking water. “‘King of the Wells,’ they used to call him,” she recalls proudly.1

Madawi began her career in education, working as the director of a girls’ secondary school. She then took a job with a Saudi bank, which sent her off to London for some training. Within a few years, she had become the first female director and branch manager of the al-Rajhi Financial Company. But her entrepreneurial drive was strong, so she left the bank to launch her business selling antiques. “I used to go to London for the auctions, and I was able to expand into home accessories, reproductions, and furniture. I also started opening salons,” she explains.

Madawi is clearly part of Jeddah’s more liberal intellectual elite. As a successful businesswoman, she has a lot of “firsts” to her credit and has been instrumental in breaking down barriers. Taking advantage of the post-9/11 dislocations in Saudi Arabia, Madawi and several other women pushed their case for fewer restrictions on businesswomen with the relatively open-minded Prince Majeed, then the governor of the province of Mecca. With the prince’s blessing, they started a Saudi businesswomen’s committee within the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. At the end of 2004, the committee became the Khadijah Center, named after Muhammad’s first wife, who was a powerful businesswoman herself. Princess Adila, daughter of King Abdullah, became the head of the center. Today, the Khadijah Center occupies a full floor of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, has its own budget and staff, and provides research and training for women-owned businesses. “I’m known as the ‘mother of the Khadijah Center,’” Madawi tells me.

Madawi treads carefully, acutely aware that her views on women’s empowerment are out of step with a majority of Saudi society. Nevertheless, she is determined to help lead her country in a more open direction. In 2006, the business community prodded the government into allowing women to run in a series of Chamber of Commerce elections around the country. Madawi made headlines by declaring herself the first female candidate for the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce elections. “Working under the guidelines of our religion, we men and women can cooperate and achieve remarkable results,” she told the Arab News.2 Madawi was out of the gate fast, campaigning first as an independent and then joining a group of 11 men (their 12th man dropped out in the final stages and they chose her as a replacement). She says she knew that her slate was bound to lose to that of the powerful businessmen Saleh Bin Laden and Mohamed Jamil. Those men were instrumental in pushing for the elections in the first place and had included two women in their group. But Madawi wanted to run a “good fight.” Indeed, her slate did lose but she made a strong showing. “I came in 13th in terms of votes—the first 12 got elected,” she says a bit wistfully.

After the elections, Madawi was appointed as an “at-large” member to the Chamber of Commerce along with another woman, joining the two who had been elected. She became a media sensation and was interviewed repeatedly by the local and international press. “I was dubbed the ‘Star of the Election,’” she crows. “I’m an antiques dealer, so I know that this chair I’m sitting in will be valuable someday!” In a more somber moment, she acknowledges that the elections were stressful. “If one thing went wrong, I could have been killed. I tried to sidestep the question of religion. When asked, I would give a big smile and say, yes, people are entitled to their opinions, but then I would remind them of Khadijah.” In all of her interviews, she was careful to emphasize that she is not a feminist. “While women need rights, those rights are different from men’s rights.” On one Beirut news show, the moderator started out the segment by asking why Eve must attack Adam. What has he done wrong? Madawi was quick to respond. “No, no. Saudi Adam has done nothing wrong! He elected me, he encourages me, he loves me!”

“We cannot provoke them,” Madawi says, referring to religious conservatives. “The only reason the Chamber of Commerce elections were successful is because they did not provoke. I can do my job because I have the right clothes of Islam, my look is suitable for Islam, and I respect differences.” In public, Madawi is always carefully covered. When I asked to take her photograph in her salon, she quickly put on her abaya. “I don’t want to give them any reason to talk about me,” she explained.

As Chamber of Commerce members, Madawi and the other businesswomen have been instrumental in identifying legal and institutional constraints that impede women’s participation in the workforce and in business. One area of focus has been to promote acceptable religious rulings and to disentangle old traditions unrelated to Islam from the law.3 In 2007, Madawi and some of the other women in the Jeddah chamber held a courageous meeting to discuss the nuances of khulwa (the state of an unrelated man and woman being in seclusion, a no-no in Islam). As Madawi explains, khulwa is a critical issue for women in Saudi Arabia: “Conservatives claim that whenever a man is with a woman, even in a crowded business meeting, it is khulwa when in fact it is not. They use this to justify segregation. We want people to understand and debate these points. We are told all the time in Saudi Arabia that we women have so many rights within Islam. Well, yes we do. We are now simply asking, politely, to clarify those rights, to write them down on paper so we can keep track of them.”

Khulwa might seem like an esoteric issue, but in the winter of 2008, it took center stage in the kingdom in a much discussed case. In February, a woman known only as Yara in the press—an Arab American woman born in Libya but raised in the United States—was arrested by Saudi Arabia’s notorious religious police, the mutawa, in a Starbucks in Riyadh in the middle of the afternoon. She had gone there with a colleague to finish some work after a power failure interrupted the Internet service in their offices. For the crime of sitting in Starbucks with a man other than her husband, the 37-year-old businesswoman, U.S. citizen, and mother of three was detained in prison for hours, strip-searched, and denied permission to call her husband, who was frantically searching for her.

The case stirred fierce debate within Saudi Arabia, with reformers condemning the actions of the mutawa and conservatives lashing out about immoral behaviors. In its own defense, the mutawa posted a statement saying, “It’s not allowed for any woman to travel alone and sit with a strange man and talk and laugh and drink coffee together like they are married.”4 “Not allowed by whom?” Madawi demands to know. “Of course women are allowed to travel alone, with permission, and Yara had the permission of her husband. The whole [case] is simply preposterous!” While cases like this occur frequently in the kingdom, what is new is the ability of the press to report on them, the willingness of men and women to speak up about them, and the broader societal debate about religious interpretation on such matters as khulwa.

Another sensitive topic the women in the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce have taken on is the requirement that female-owned businesses have a legal male guardian, or wakil, to conduct their business. Although this law has officially been changed on paper, it is still the de facto expectation. Many bureaucrats simply refuse to deal directly with women business owners. A further obstacle is licensing. Women-owned businesses are often licensed under the category of “tailor,” since women sewing is socially acceptable, even though the business might actually be marketing or public relations (or in fact, just about anything). Madawi’s salons are licensed as boutiques. “Salons are just too much for the mutawa. They forbid them, although there are hundreds of them throughout Saudi Arabia. It’s like the driving issue, just ridiculous,” scoffs Madawi.


Isobel Coleman

Isobel Coleman, author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet, is a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and director of the council’s Women and Foreign Policy...

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