Women in a changing Saudi Arabia
The world of work is opening up to women in the kingdom and economic freedom is beginning to empower them in other ways, too
By Brian Whitaker
THE GUARDIAN , RIYADH
Friday, Feb 24, 2006,Page 9
A heavy metal door guards the entrance to the women’s section of the Nardeen lighting company in Riyadh. To gain admittance, you press the bell and wait. In my case it is a long wait because the arrival of a male visitor brings production to a halt inside the factory while the entire workforce of 30 women shroud their faces in black.
Eventually I am allowed in, only to hear a scream from one woman in the distance who is still wrestling to pull her abaya over an orange-colored dress. Unsure of the protocol, I turn my back to await the all-clear.
Working from 7am to 3pm with a lunch break and a prayer break, the women assemble 2,800 fluorescent light fittings every day. It’s fiddly work but, even with the woollen gloves they wear to protect their skin, they slip the wires and other bits and pieces into position at lightning speed. Once an hour a loud bell rings, signaling that they must cover themselves again because a man is coming to collect their finished work.
The women’s section at the factory, which opened last April, is a sign of changing times in Saudi Arabia. It is one of half a dozen projects sponsored by a charity to provide needy women with jobs in a man-free environment.
It may look a bit like a sweatshop but the women here seem happy enough. They are paid the same rates as men and earn 2,000 riyals (US$533) a month, plus bonuses if they exceed the daily production quota — not a lot considering the country’s oil wealth, but comparable with what some Saudi teachers earn.
"In the days of the Prophet the women and men used to sit and learn together. So why is it that today we have to be segregated? Islam definitely provides these rights but states don’t ensure the implementation … not with employment, not politically, economically or education-wise." Faten Abbar, International Organization for Woman and Family.
While the factory satisfies the kingdom’s traditionalists on one count — keeping the sexes apart — the very idea of women going out to work is still controversial. Even among Saudi women themselves, as many as 39 percent, according to one survey, still believe their rightful place is at home. For other women, though, the big question is not the supply of jobs but how to get to work if they take one — in this most traditional of Arab states, women are still forbidden, by custom, if not specifically by law, to drive.
"The problem with the Saudi female is transportation," said Abeer al-Shuaibi, a spokeswoman for the Nahda society, the charity behind the factory project. "Some families do not like daughters going in taxis."
With Riyadh’s scarce buses considered unsuitable for women, some rely on male family members to drive them to work. Others, like Hindi al-Tuwajri, divorced and with three children, pay a driver 400 riyals a month — 20 percent of her total income — to take her to the factory each day, a 20-minute journey.
Gradually, Saudis are beginning to realize that the exclusion of women from meaningful activity outside the home just to preserve old desert traditions is a waste of talent and resources. More than half the kingdom’s university graduates are female and yet women account for only about 5 percent of the workforce.
Although women still cannot vote or drive, the last few years have brought important changes, even if they stop well short of equality. Women can now officially exist in their own right with their own identity cards, rather than being included on the card of their husband or father. Travel restrictions have been eased, allowing them to get blanket permission from a male relative for travel abroad, rather than needing separate permission for each trip.
They can also own businesses instead of having to register them in the name of a wakil, an authorized male representative or proxy.
Lilac al-Safadi exemplifies the new breed of businesswomen in Saudi Arabia. From her office on the 25th floor of the spectacular Kingdom Tower in Riyadh, she runs a business consultancy which she started a year ago.
It’s called Lavender Scent and the company brochure, printed in various shades of mauve and decorated with images of flowers and silhouettes of women with awesome shoulder-pads, leaves no doubt about her target market: female investors and entrepreneurs.
"Women getting into business is not something new, but now there is a boom," said Safadi, who did her postgraduate studies in information-technology and business in Australia.
"The government is encouraging people big-time. They are trying to be much easier on the logistics and encouraging the private sector to open women’s sections," she said.
Besides owning 60 percent of company shares in the kingdom, Saudi women collectively have US$25 billion in bank accounts — money that could be invested in new businesses.
In the meantime, though, they face some serious obstacles, not least the lack of a suitable workforce. Among the small numbers of women who do work, 70 percent are in education and medicine — the two main "suitable" fields for women. Less than 1 percent go into business.
Principally, Safadi said, they don’t like working with men.
"For example,when it comes to sales and marketing, that is when you have to be in contact with a lot of men. This is exactly what the women are trying to avoid. They want a job that is not really in a mixed environment, but with most of the businesses in the private sector it’s mixed environments," she said.
Journalism is one area in which Saudi women are now well established. Among the best known is Rania al-Baz, a popular TV presenter who disappeared from the screens suddenly in 2004 because her husband had beaten her so badly that she needed 12 operations.
Sabria Jawhar introduces herself with a business card saying she is "head of the ladies’ department" at the Saudi Gazette in Jeddah. Jawhar has a masters in applied linguistics and, like most professional Saudi women, speaks perfect English. With only her eyes visible, it’s hard to tell her age but she seems young and a pair of faded blue jeans show beneath her abaya when she sits.
How difficult is it for a Saudi woman to get into journalism? That is not really the problem, Jawhar said.
"Women here are scared," she said. "They are just reluctant to get into that field due to some social conceptions about the job."
Some women have worked in journalism for years, "but all they write about is women’s issues, children and family affairs. They don’t want to get into covering areas like politics or terrorism. I am the only Saudi female who is covering terrorism. I go to the field and I cover these things," Jawhar said. "So there is a change. The government never stopped us. It’s us. The barrier is inside the women."
The newspaper office has an area reserved for women, though they can choose whether or not to use it.
"Some of the girls feel much more comfortable working in separate sections but it’s only while we write. Actually, we mix with men. We have two or three daily meetings with reporters and editors. We mix, we talk together, we do the work together, we go out together, so no problem," she said.
"It’s just that when we work … for somebody like me, because I’m veiled, I’d rather work in a separate place where I can take off my veil. It’s my choice," she said.
"Four female editors work upstairs with guys in the same office, and they are not veiled. That’s their choice. Here in Jeddah it’s more flexible than it is in Riyadh," Jawhar said.
Dress codes and their local variations are determined more by tradition than written laws. Women who are considered not to be properly dressed face harassment — in general, this means covering the face as well as the hair, with Riyadh regarded as one of the more conservative places.
The rival daily, Arab News, has 10 full-time women among its 40 staff.
When it comes to interviewing Saudi men, Somayya Jabarti said,"We’ve never had problems dealing with men who won’t talk."
"Maybe if we’re calling an Islamic scholar or a sheikh we may ask, because we want results. Often it’s the opposite. Sometimes a male colleague will come and ask us to do the call because they know men will be much more cooperative with us," she said.
The paper also sends its women reporters on foreign assignments, though sometimes a relative goes with them. One recently took her father to cover a conference in Cairo, while another went to Beirut with her mother.
The social complexities of women working and doing business arise from one basic idea: that men are uncontrollably attracted to women and that women are natural temptresses, even if they try not to be.
The Saudi solution, therefore, is to keep them apart as much as possible unless they are related by blood or marriage. Whatever the official line, though, a younger generation are increasingly finding ways around this.
"Whether it’s affairs, whether it’s dating, it’s out there in the open," Jabarti said.
"Here in Jeddah, I go to coffee shops and I see openly girls and boys, and they’re dating. It’s obvious they’re not married, they’re not engaged, they’re not related. They are out, together," she said.
Coffee shops and restaurants are curtained off into sections, with separate entrances for "singles" (ie, single men) and families.
Sometimes there’s also a women-only section. The family section is where people do their dating.
"We always make jokes that having such a system where your table is surrounded by partitions or curtains — if someone wants to have a date or something, it’s perfect privacy," Jabarti said.
The kingdom’s sexual apartheid is enforced, in a crude fashion, by the religious police, the mutawa. Thuggish, bigoted and with little real training in Islamic law, they are much feared in some areas but also increasingly ridiculed. In Jeddah — a more laid-back city than Riyadh — they are rarely seen nowadays.
"We only get to see some of them during Ramadan, and every now and then we hear about how they’ve raided some restaurant and checked whether people were legally related or not, and stuff like that, but it’s very random," Jabarti said. "It hardly ever happens here."
The mutawa, who don’t wear uniform, ran into more trouble in Riyadh last December. Two of them tailed a man and his wife back to their home, suspecting they were unmarried. The man, who thought they were trying to kidnap his wife, said they attacked him as he stepped out of his car and then pursued his wife as she ran to a neighbor’s apartment screaming for help.
And despite strenuous efforts to prevent any activity that might conceivably lead to immorality, the result is far from a model society. Neither men nor women have much opportunity to learn how they might interact with one another in non-sexual ways, which can lead to serious problems. In Riyadh last year, two girls were molested by four teenage youths who made a video clip of the attack on a mobile phone, then circulated it to friends. The video was passed from phone to phone before it came to the attention of the authorities who identified the boys and arrested them. Reportedly there are dozens of similar phone videos in circulation.
An article in al-Watan newspaper recently urged Saudi parents to think twice before sending their teenage sons to study in the US because of their unfamiliarity with US customs.
Americans expect people to observe traffic laws, it explained; they also disapprove of bribery and lying to officials and the women are liable to complain if sexually harassed.
"One of the bad habits our students take with them when they go abroad is the culture of sexual harassment," the article said.
So perhaps it’s scarcely surprising that many Saudi women say they feel more comfortable in segregated areas where they can relax and take their abayas off. It’s clear, though, that the present system cannot survive indefinitely and the government is trying to steer a middle course by taking small, cautious steps to please the women’s rights activists while trying not to provoke too much opposition from the traditionalists. It balked at letting women vote in the local government elections early last year but in December did nothing to stop Jeddah’s Chamber of Commerce holding the first mixed elections for its board — in which women won two of the 12 seats.
CULTURE, NOT ISLAM
Saudi Arabia signed the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 2000 — but it added a rider claiming the right to ignore any part of the treaty that conflicts with "the norms of Islamic law."
The real conflict, though, is not with Islamic law but the "pre-Islamic patriarchal culture," according to Faten Abbar, who works for the International Organization for Woman and Family in Jeddah.
"The thing with Islam that’s tricky is interpretation — and it’s always male interpretation, so a lot of it comes from a very male perspective," she said.
"If you study Islam you will find verses that grant women economic equality and chances for employment; they are allowed to go out and work," Abbar said.
"In the days of the Prophet the women and men used to sit and learn together. So why is it that today we have to be segregated? Islam definitely provides these rights but states don’t ensure the implementation … not with employment, not politically, economically or education-wise," she said.
Nobody disputes that the women actively pressing for rights are a tiny minority but they are vociferous and come almost entirely from the kingdom’s Western-educated elite, which makes them difficult to ignore. Often, they are also supported by men from the liberal elite — including some of the princes — though men who make their support too visible can become targets for salacious gossip about their motives.
Two friends, Mr A and Mrs B, are sitting side by side on a sofa in the foyer of a Riyadh hotel as we chat about life in Saudi Arabia.
They are not married to each other and so, strictly speaking, should not be together in public. Nobody in the hotel seems to mind, but it would be unwise to mention their names, just in case. Mr A wears a white thobe with checkered head-dress and Mrs B is covered in black, with only her eyes and hands visible. Every now and then she lifts her veil a little, enough to squeeze her teacup underneath.
Somehow, our conversation turns to the subject of parties.
"Saudis love to celebrate," Mrs B said. "We party big-time."
Men and women, of course, do their partying separately. Men’s parties tend to be dull affairs. In Riyadh, male partygoers just sit around, Mr A said. In Jeddah they play cards. In Ha’il (in the north), they may do a bit of sword-dancing. Then they go home, usually by midnight.
"The point is that you should always be sad," Mr A grumbled.
Women’s parties are a different matter, and often carry on until 4am with dancing, female DJs and sometimes all-woman bands.
"Even the most religious women, if it’s only drums, they get up and dance," Mrs B said.
"In the West it’s the young and beautiful who dance. Here, if you’re overweight it’s OK. The women are not doing it to show off. They’re doing it to enjoy themselves," she said.
And one of the ironies of Saudi Arabia’s sexual apartheid is that women’s parties are a no-go area for the men of the mutawa. They can’t raid a women’s party unless they suspect alcohol is present — and they are in serious trouble if their suspicions turn out to be wrong.
"In that area, women have more freedom," Mrs B said.
Later, Mr A suggests the partying is what holds Saudi women back.
"They have too much fun," he said, though he wouldn’t dare say it in Mrs B’s hearing. "I think that’s why they don’t complain more."