More Saudi women join the workforce, but limits remain strict

They are challenging sex segregation, taking jobs in education, medicine, and banking.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Saudi women are prohibited from driving, voting, traveling abroad, or working without the permission of a male relative.

But they are joining the work force. A new all-women's light-fixture factory and a car salesroom for women are two small cracks in the patriarchal system that has by law relegated women to second-class status.

Just as in the West, Saudi women are graduating from universities at higher rates than men. And they are demanding opportunities that the ulema – the Islamic scholars who hold vast sway in the Kingdom – have long denied them.

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They are taking jobs in education, medicine, and banking. Lately, the country's labor minister has been pushing for legal changes that would allow more women to work in retail jobs and factories – a sharp challenge to Saudi Arabia's sex segregation.

So far, the job opportunities for educated Saudi women have been largely thanks to the grace of the men in their lives. Many women remain barred from work, education, even choosing their own husbands, by male family members.

While most women here say they hope there are fewer obstacles to the success of their daughters, there is no consensus on how far social change should be allowed to go.

Take Amal al-Hazzaa, a molecular biologist and one of the country's leading cancer researchers. Raised in Tucson, Ariz., until the seventh grade, she returned here to educational opportunities her mother could hardly have dreamed of. "I have never felt barred from getting where I want to be," she says.

But she acknowledges her success wouldn't have been possible without a father and husband who have supported her every step of the way.

When she received a scholarship for her PhD in Britain, her husband quit his job in Saudi Arabia so he could be the male relative that accompanied her abroad. He effectively became a househusband for a year to look after their sons.

"If you don't have your husband behind you, it's hard to get anything accomplished. It's still a problem. A lot of Saudi men wouldn't do anything for their wives," she says.

But Ms. Hazzaa, who favors a full niqab – the veil that covers everything but a woman's eyes – when in public, says that many of the issues that are focused on in the West – women driving, for instance – aren't important to her. She's frustrated at critics from outside the country.

"Sometimes I just want to say to them, 'We are happy with our position. We aren't victims.' We are a very young country, and I feel like what we're achieving now is like leap-frogging."

In many cases, she says, sex segregation should be maintained – in schools and universities, for instance. "I know that if things were a little easier maybe I could have accomplished double – but it's not just here. In the [United] States, women have to work twice as hard as men to get ahead, too."

To be sure, there are backward steps. Labor Minister Ghazi al-Ghusaibi issued a regulation last year requiring women, and not men, to work in lingerie shops. He couched the proposal in terms that would appeal to the religious hierarchy, arguing that salesmen holding up and discussing lacy undergarments with women was more likely to lead to sexual temptation than allowing women to work. But many Saudis say that his ultimate intention was to open up most retail jobs to women.

"The clerics knew this was the thin end of the wedge and defeated him," says one Saudi businessman in Riyadh, the capital. "They know that all these symbolic issues – women driving, working with men – will erode the foundations of their control." The Saudi Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Ashaikh described allowing women to work as leading to "hellfire" and Mr. Ghusaibi received a personal death threat from Osama bin Laden for his trouble.

A sheikh at a government religious affairs office in Riyadh, who asks that his name not be used, says that he intends to fight expanded opportunities for women tooth and nail. "Allowing men and women to work together sows the seeds of destruction in any society. There's already too many of these imported and un-Islamic ideas here. We're the only place on earth where real Islamic law is applied, and that's non-negotiable."

Even so, there are experiments getting women into the workplace. In Riyadh, there's a car dealership where women can shop for the car that will be piloted by their male drivers. Also in the Riyadh area, at least two factories, as part of a placement program involving a government-linked charity, have women working on assembly lines making light fixtures. But when full boxes are ready to go the warehouse, a bell goes off telling the women to cover their faces before male workers enter to take the finished products away.

Abeer al-Futi represents one path that is becoming common in the Kingdom. At 34, she's head of education at the Sultan Abdul Aziz Humanitarian City – a sprawling hospital complex where she whips around the campus in a custom golf cart. She says women now are getting more opportunities because past discrimination has worked in their favor.

After the first Gulf War, the presence of US women soldiers driving Humvees inspired a small group women to drive in Riyadh in a protest demanding more rights. Their effort backfired.

"It was a lot worse for us for a decade after that, " she recalls. "We need change, but it's got to be slowly and cautiously."

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