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Saudi Arabia Straddling the Line on Women’s Rights

  • Cecily Hilleary

A Saudi saleswoman works at a jewelry shop in Jeddah, January 9, 2012.

A Saudi saleswoman works at a jewelry shop in Jeddah, January 9, 2012.

Recent reports that Saudi Arabia is building “women-only” industrial zones have raised eyebrows. Will offering segregated employment help women progress -- or tuck them even further out of sight in Saudi’s male-oriented society?

Earlier this month, the Saudi Industrial Property Authority—or MODUN, announced it was building a number of industrial cities that will include women-only business zones. This will allow women to work without violating religious laws banning unrelated men and women working together. If all goes as planned, the first of these cities, Al-Ahsa, will be open for business within a year.

This is the latest in a series of moves that Saudi Arabia says is intended to enhance the role of women in society. Last autumn, King Abdullah granted women the right to vote in municipal elections and to serve on the Shura Council.

This year, the Saudi Labor Ministry issued a series of new directives: Women no longer need their husband or custodian’s permission to work. Shops that cater exclusively to women, i.e., lingerie, cosmetic and perfume shops, must only hire women. Factories have been ordered to employ more women, and businesses must now create separate spaces and facilities for women workers.

What’s driving the changes?

A recent article by David B. Ottaway, senior scholar at the Washington, DC-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, suggests Saudi Arabia is racing to ward off a “social explosion.”

Every year, 150,000 Saudis turn 18 and as many as 300,000 graduates enter the Saudi job market -- many of them foreign-educated under a scholarship program inaugurated in 2005. Sixty percent of all college graduates are women. The job market simply is not big enough to accommodate them, and authorities fear that chronic unemployment among youth could trigger unrest.

So the government is busy creating jobs and changing policies as fast as it can. The new city of Al-Ahsa will provide 10,000 new jobs, half of them for women. Several more cities are planned.

Through its new “Nitaqat” program, Saudi Arabia will replace some of the 6 million foreign workers now working in the kingdom with young Saudis. The government has also instituted unemployment insurance, or “Hafiz,” which not only provides benefits to women, but gives the kingdom a better idea of just how many young citizens are actively seeking jobs.

Khalid AlKhudair is founder of Glowork.net, a women’s empowerment initiative that so far has created thousands of jobs for women.

“This program allows all those who are between 20 and 35 to benefit from a program that gives back approximately US $800 dollars a month for a period of one year,” AlKhudair said. “Right now, over 1.2 million Saudi women are registered.”

In fact, women represent 80% of the applicants.

To respond to women’s job needs, AlKhudair founded Glowork as what he calls a “one-stop shop.” Glowork provides a job listing service; partners with corporations to recruit women and guarantees their “privacy” through modifications to the workplace or telecommuting opportunities; offers career guidance at the university level and works with the government in an attempt to increase public sector employment diversity to 50%. AlKhudair says Glowork has placed 6,000 women in its first year and aims to place 50,000 more women over the next five years.

Token or genuine reforms

So, if women are working -- but still remain segregated -- does this represent real progress? Christoph Wilcke, senior researcher in Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division for Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen says, “Yes—and no.”

“Not every small corner shop, not every small office can afford to have two floors, one for men and one for women, two elevators, a whole string of separate bathrooms, et cetera,” he said. “So while the government is trying to facilitate women into the labor force, they have been reminded by the religious powers in the country that this must only be with very strict segregation indeed.”

Wilcke is not sure that women-only sectors in cities like Al-Ahsa is the final answer for helping women achieve their full potential. The real factors holding Saudi women back are the sex segregation issue and the guardianship system, by which a father, brother or even a son makes decisions for the woman.

That said, Wilcke believes the new directives are a good start. “This may represent a sort of an embryonic stage, where making the idea of working women palatable to Saudi society and Saudi businesses can have some effect in the long term,” Wilcke said. (Check out our full interview with Christoph Wilcke on MiddleEastVoices.com)

Challenges

Women qualified to work are very much supported by government and by progressive companies, says Samar Fatany, a radio broadcaster, writer and rights activist who lives and works in Jeddah.Some of the strongest resistance to change, she says, actually comes from within Saudi society itself.

For so many centuries, Fatany explains, Saudi citizens -- especially women -- were isolated from the rest of the world.

“They were indoctrinated by an ideology with a very rigid interpretation of Islamic laws and rules,” she said, “so it’s very difficult to all of a sudden tell them to say ‘no’ to all these hardliners and religious leaders that have been so revered by society…that it’s not un-Islamic to drive, it’s not un-Islamic to work, it’s not un-Islamic to defy abusive husbands.”

Fatany says she is lucky because she lives in a cosmopolitan center, where people have been exposed to new ideas by the constant influx of religious pilgrims coming from all over the world, and she had lots of support from family. But women in rural or tribal areas may be afraid to go to work.

A lot of them are still glancing at one another, Fatany says, waiting to see who is going to be the woman to take the first leap.

Check out our interview on Saudi women's rights

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