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In Saudi Arabia, I was invited into a world rarely visited by outsiders--one that is considered off-limits and impenetrable--to lift the abaya and niqab and meet the women underneath.

Dr. Fawzia Akhdar, retired member of the ministry of education: “The Saudi woman is a chancellor, judge, leader, and mother. She can shake the world with her left hand and rock her child with her right, as Napoleon said. The rest of the world views the Saudi woman differently because she is covered and wearing a hijab, so she must be oppressed. But the opposite is true. The Saudi woman is like the rest of the women of the world, or even stronger because she has had to fight to reach where she is.” Forty-five percent of Saudi Arabia’s population is female. Ironically, these ladies control an estimated $11.9 billion of the nation’s wealth but are denied rights that most women take for granted: They are forbidden from voting (until 2015), can’t drive, and require written permission from their male “guardians” (usually a father or husband) if they wish to travel abroad or open a business. It’s no wonder they are often stereotyped as faceless, voiceless shadows without control over their own destinies.  Offered a unique opportunity, I was invited into a world rarely visited by outsiders—one that is usually considered off-limits and impenetrable—to lift the abaya and niqab and meet the women underneath. Watch Ziyah meet these Saudi women in a new episode of Picture Perfect, coming soon to Najat Bager, former school principal who now writes for various newspapers and internet publications: “Westerners must change the way they relate to us in the media. They must write the truth about Saudi women—and not just the bad women. We have women who are working as directors in television and editors at newspapers. It’s not like before.” Salwa Shaker, broadcaster: “When I started working as a broadcaster you could count us on one hand—perhaps three or four—but now we have more than 20 or 25 female broadcasters. What’s important is that the kingdom and the government gave priority to the development of human abilities, whether of a man or of a woman.” Faima Almotawa, dentistry student in her internship year: “The world should know that we don’t live in a desert and that we don’t ride camels. Our women are not slaves at home. We go to work, study, and decide our own pathway. Our challenges have never been about the Saudi government—it’s the culture. People can’t accept that women can be in line with men. Or at least they couldn’t accept it, until now.” Deema Barghouthi, child-speech pathologist: “Saudi women are just like any other women in the world. They are nice wives, they are kind to their kids, and they are ambitious. We want to learn and get higher education to serve our country.”