Norah al-Faiz is supposed to be a symbol of progress in Saudi Arabia. She was appointed deputy minister of education by King Abdullah in February 2009, making her the kingdom's highest-ranking female official. At the time, many observers hailed the move as a sign of reform.
But controversy has dogged Faiz since the beginning of her tenure. When the news of her appointment first broke, the Saudi daily al-Watan published a small headshot of her, wearing a headscarf but showing her face. She reacted angrily, and quickly clarified that she wore the niqab, a black covering that hides the face except for a small slit for the eyes. For Saudi women who wear the niqab, showing their faces in public, let alone mainstream media, is unacceptable.
"The publication of my photo upset me immensely," she told the newspaper in an interview. "[I]t is well known that I am a Saudi woman from Najd," she said, referring to the conservative central region of the country, "and thus I wear a niqab. I will never allow the publishing of my photo in newspapers and I will not accept that it be put up anywhere."
Faiz asked the media not to use any photographs of her and, for the most part, it respected her wish. Upon her inclusion in Time's list of the world's 100 most influential people, the magazine used an illustration of a woman wearing the niqab. In response to questions about how she can work with her male colleagues -- given the strict gender-segregation rules that prohibit men and women from working side by side in government offices -- she responded that their interactions would be conducted "through closed-circuit TV." (In other words, she would sit in a different room from her male colleagues and would be able to see and hear them, while they would only be able to hear her voice.)
A woman's decision to cover her face is a personal choice, and I respect it. But despite Faiz's repeated invocations of her pious Najdi roots, she does not regularly wear the niqab. And the fact that she feels the need to tell the Saudi media differently raises some troublesome questions about the prospects of those trying to reform the kingdom's policies on women's rights from inside the system.
The evidence Faiz doesn't always wear the niqab is all over the Internet. Walid Fitahi, a well-known Saudi doctor, recently tweeted a photo of Faiz addressing Saudi graduates from American universities in Maryland that showed her wearing a white headscarf. A photo distributed by Saudi Arabia's official state news agency on the same day shows her in the same outfit, sitting next to Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir.
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