‘It’s extraordinary to see behind the veil’: Duchess of Cornwall praises progress for women in Saudi Arabia as she visits a centre teaching arts and crafts
The Duchess of Cornwall said she has been moved to ‘see behind the veil’ during her three-day trip to Saudi Arabia.
Speaking during a visit to a female-only centre which offers training and job opportunities this morning, Camilla said she believed huge strides had been made in empowering women since she last visited almost six years ago.
The Mail’s Royal Correspondent was the only journalist allowed to accompany the Duchess on her tour to the centre in Jeddah and she told us exclusively afterwards: ‘I’ve noticed from the last visit I made here in 2006 – five, six years ago now – a sea of change.
The Duchess of Cornwall was given a drink after arriving at the Bab Rizq Jameel Nafisa Shams Female Academy for Arts and Crafts in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
‘Talking to all the women, they tell me they feel the difference too.
‘They are in a world that can see and is starting to recognise their talents.
‘I think one of the great examples is the king giving access to the ladies in parliament. I think that has made a huge difference.’
Camilla continued: ‘There is more and more progress all the time.
‘[This time] I have had much more of a chance to meet so many women from so many different walks of life – from the women of the Shura [the Saudi parliament], to these wonderful entrepreneurs you see around us here.
‘It’s extraordinary to have the opportunity to see behind the veils. It’s been the most remarkable experience.’
The role of women in society has been the main theme of the duchess’s visit to the country.
Saudi women have few rights and are required, regardless of age, to have a male guardian – typically a father or husband – who must give their permission for everything from opening a bank account to marriage.
They cannot vote or be elected to high office and are prohibited from driving. In 2011 a woman from Jeddah was sentenced to ten lashes by whip after being caught behind the wheel.
Women are also required to be segregated from men in public. Most offices, banks and universities have separate entrances and they are required to sit separately on public transport and in restaurants.
When it comes to dress, women are also expected to cover all parts of the body that are ‘awrah’ – not meant to be exposed.
Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islam means they must cover their entire body with a black cloak known as an abaya and headcovering, or hijab, leaving just the eyes and the hands exposed.
Conventions for dress and behaviour are all fiercely enforced by the notorious religious police, or mutaween, whose official title is the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
As a member of the British royal family, Camilla is not required to wear an abaya – but has chosen to dress ‘demurely’ as a mark of respect to her hosts.
The duchess has already visited Riyadh’s women-only university and met with some of the country’s 30 new female MPs to highlight some of the steps Saudi women are taking towards equality.
Today she was at the Bab Rizq Jameel Nafisa Shams Female Academy for Arts and Crafts, which provides training and job opportunities for Saudi women.
She was greeted by Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel, the chairman of the Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives, and was given a tour of the training centre, starting upstairs with the beauty and fashion workshops.
The area is very much women-only with even the duchess’s male bodyguards forced to wait downstairs.
One of the classes she watched was on how to apply wedding make-up.
‘Would you like to open your own salon?’ she asked one of the women.
‘I think there is a real demand for this. After all, wherever you are in the world, women like to look nice, don’t they?’
She also chatted to women learning seamstress skills and creating exquisite Western-influenced clothes.
‘It makes me feel so inadequate,’ she joked.
‘My Home Economics classes were a disaster. I never got past making a circular skirt.’
Camilla examined jewellery made by women at the female-only training centre in Jeddah this morning
Afterwards she walked to a more public area where women are taught how to make prayer mats, jewellery and cupcakes – where she watched veiled ladies creating exquisite handmade chocolates and was even persuaded one or two – ‘Or three,’ she joked.
‘I never thought I would say it but I don’t think I can face any more chocolate.’
The duchess completed her visit by viewing an exhibition space where a wide range of products made by the women – including soaps, cushions, prayer beads and abayas – are displayed and sold.
She chatted at length with mother-of-four Nahed Qaqad, 34, who has started Violet, a firm making wedding and christening decorations and gifts.
‘I just don’t know how you find the time to do all this with your family,’ she said.
‘You are truly amazing.’
Veiled Nahed told her: ‘My husband is very supportive of me and my daughters help. I want them to grow up knowing they can do something like this. The business is small but I hope it will grow.’
The Bab Rizq Jameel project provides vocational training programmes in collaboration with government institutions, with students selected and financed for three to six month intensive development courses.
It has already created over 190,000 job opportunities throughout Saudi Arabia.
Prince Charles, meanwhile, visited the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and met with British executives involved in plans to redevelop the King Abdulaziz International Airport and build a new rail terminal designed to absorb the enormous flow of Muslims pilgrims travelling to and from nearby Mecca.
The couple’s visit to Saudi Arabia is of huge importance to the British Government in terms of diplomatic, trade and military links, but was always going to prove controversial because of the country’s human rights record.
Their visit, which started on Friday, saw them arrive at the centre of an international human rights outcry, with pressure groups calling on Prince Charles to voice his disapproval at the controversial public execution of seven men on Wednesday.
Camilla also sampled homemade chocolates at the centre and joked she might have one, or two, or three
Prince Charles visited the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on his final day in Saudi Arabia and met OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu
The victims, who had been convicted of armed robbery, died at the hands of a ‘humane’ firing squad as the country is, according to reports, struggling to find enough executioners to carry out traditional beheadings.
Two of the group were juveniles when they were charged before being detained for more than three years.
All were said to have been subjected to torture in order to illicit confessions and denied legal representation in court.
One of the men was due to be crucified after his death, with his body tied to a pole in a public square to act as a deterrent to others.
The British Government has already voiced its anger with the Foreign Office’s Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, saying: ‘The UK opposes as a matter of principle all use of the death penalty, whatever the crime committed.
‘The alleged circumstances surrounding the executions cause enormous damage to Saudi Arabia’s reputation internationally.’
Amnesty International also called on Charles, who enjoys a close relationship with many senior members of the ruling Saudi Royal Family, to use his influence to raise the issue at the highest level.
‘Prince Charles has always had the tip of his well-polished brogues in the political world and he should use his influence to tell the royal House of Saud a few home truths about the country’s dreadful human rights record,’ said Kate Allen, Amnesty’s UK director.
‘Surely, arriving in the wake of controversial executions and the jailing of human rights activists, Charles will want to at least broach these matters?’
Although Clarence House have declined to comment publicly, diplomatic sources say Charles was likely to discuss reform in Saudi Arabia with the country’s future ruler, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz.
‘The reason why the government is keen for the prince to come here is that he enjoys a very different relationship with the Saudi Royal Family to that of the government. He can get things done in a way the politicians frankly can’t,’ they said.
Saudi Arabia is one of five states in the world to conduct public executions and has the widest number of crimes punishable by death, including murder, rape, sodomy, robbery, theft (after four offences), false prophecy and witchcraft.
According to Amnesty International at least 17 people, including eight foreign nationals, have already been executed this year.
These include including Sri Lankan domestic worker Rizana Nafeek, who was accused of killing a baby in her care when she was just 17 but claimed to have confessed under duress.
This afternoon, Charles and Camilla flew to Oman for the final leg of their Middle East tour.