Saudi Arabia attracts constant criticism from human rights groups for its systemic discrimination against women. Here the Wahabi shariah law and tribal customs combine to create an ultra-conservative society that places many restrictions on them – from segregation to even a ban on driving. The World Economic Forum 2009 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 130 out of 134 countries for gender parity; it was the only country to score a zero in the category of political empowerment of women.
In this very restrained social space are some well-qualified, professional women who are shattering stereotypes. Take Rotana Sobhi Al-Kadi, who works as a research analyst and that too in the mixed gender environment of an investment bank. Married and the mother of a two-year-old, she created her own space in an otherwise male-dominated sector. She doesn’t think it is “unusual” for her to be a part of the workforce. “I never thought that I would only just stay at home. In fact, I was always dreaming about building an outstanding career,” she says. Lucky for her that Rotana never faced any resistance at home and for her working is “to have a finger-print in society. For me, it is very important to be productive”.
Sameera Ansari, who is of Indian origin, but she grew up in Saudi Arabia disagrees with the fact that it’s uncommon for women to be working in Saudi Aabia, although she concedes that their “options might be limited”. Sameera worked at a research centre of a prominent hospital in Riyadh, which had both male and female staffers. She never checked whether the centre complied with the specific gender segregation rules of the Ministry of Labour and the ‘mutaween’ – the government-authorised religious police, but she adds that even if ever she felt uncomfortable because of the male presence in her workplace then it was something that could “arise for a woman irrespective of the country she is in”. Rotana, too, never really cared to take the trouble of finding out about compliance of these rules; for her “my ‘hijab’ (head covering) along with my way of dealing with others are more important”.
For Afnan Mohammed Al Wohaibi, a Saudi-French translator who works for the government, her job signifies freedom. She says, “Once I started working, I felt independent, grown up. I have my own money and that makes me feel so much stronger.”
Afnan was born and brought up in the kingdom and started working soon after graduating, just like the other women in her family. Commenting on the job prospects of women in her country, she says, “Saudi women have been working for 50 years now, especially in the teaching field. But nowadays one can find them almost everywhere.”
Just like many women around the world, Afnan, too, finds happiness and a sense of fulfillment in having a successful career besides a happy family. Ask her if there was anything she wanted to change about the current system and she says, “Maybe the rule that requires a male guardian’s permission to be able to travel, study or work. If that is eased it would do wonders for empowering women here.”
Afnan, Rotana and Sameera are indicators of the changing tide in the kingdom. Not only are they emancipated enough to step out of their homes, they are also managing their role as caregivers in the family well. Areej Mahboob Jilani, a Pakistani born to a Saudi mother, feels that “work is a blessing. It gives you independence but more than that, it keeps you busy in a productive activity. Most women can manage their home and family responsibilities along with the job. I believe it’s good to work and utilise the knowledge and skills one has acquired through education.” Areej, who has done her Masters in Islamic Financial Management and has a bachelors degree in Computer Engineering, always observes both the ‘hijab’ (head cover) and ‘niqab’ (veil), which is her way of complying with the Islamic dictate.
Expats like Annah Abetti from the United States, too feel the change in attitudes. Annah has studied the Middle East and had also taken up Arabic as part of her undergraduate degree. So after finishing graduate school she decided to work in Saudi Arabia as it looked like an interesting place to live in, a place where “not just anyone can come”. With her husband’s support she embarked upon this experiment and has never regretted the decision.
Annah works on an all-female campus. Talking about her experience she says that “occasionally, a maintenance man will come to th campus and we’ll be ordered to cover up. That makes me feel uncomfortable – all the anxiety surrounding his presence”, otherwise she enjoys the environment. Moreover, working in Saudi Arabia gives her creative, financial and emotional independence; it also gives a sense of purpose.
Change, however, slow is definitely in the offing for Saudi women – in fact, the monarch recently granted them the right to vote. At present, women are said to make up about 15 per cent of the country’s workforce although most of them are concentrated in female-only workplaces. Mixed gender avenues are gradually on the rise too. There’s also talk of the construction of a dedicated women-only industrial city. Expected to come up in the Eastern Province city of Hofuf, it is set to be the first of several planned for the Gulf kingdom. According to reports, the aim is to allow more women to work and achieve greater financial independence, while maintaining gender segregation.
Areej feels that a “women-only industrial city is a good move and will create job opportunities for many women. But since for many women the priority is home, husband and kids, we need opportunities where we can do our professional duties without compromising on our obligatory responsibilities.”
Rotana too finds this to be a good idea especially because “some Saudi women are still looking for a women-only environment to work in”, while Sameera is “hopeful that it will help women to get better, if not equal, salaries in comparison to men.” Annah is a little more skeptical of the move. She says, “If women want to work there and aren’t forced to be there, then it is fine. However, if it sets a precedent for future female cities with the hope that men and women never work together and don’t have the choice to, then there is a problem. I’m not a believer in forced gender separation; however, I’m not opposed to keeping it an option.”
So whether it is Rotana, Afnan, Areej, Sameera or Annah, women are making their mark in an otherwise conservative society. They still may not be able to drive or go out unescorted, but professionally at least they feel they are going places. These women have the same dreams and aspirations as their counterparts across the globe.
Contrary to the general view that women in this part of the world have no rights, no freedom, one can see many exemplary women who are living their dream, not to prove a point but just to do what they like doing. Rotana dreams of doing her Ph.D soon and becoming a faculty member at the King Abdul-Aziz University, one of kingdom’s best educational institutes, while Areej may have “no specific long term plan, but I always like to learn more, advance professionally and enhance my skills”.