Contrary to impressions in the West, the subject of working women in Saudi Arabia is not off limits to discussion; in fact, it is frequently the subjet of a lively debate in the mass media, with sharp divisions of opinion.
Although the phenomenon is new, Saudi Arabia now has a substantial number of working women. It is estimated that at least 20,000 Saudi women are working in the public sector alone, as teachers, school administrators, nurses, doctors, radio announcers and programmers, and social workers. Saudi women now constitute 8 to 10 percent of workers on the government payroll and contribute 1 percent of the country's gross nationalk product.
In a country where 45 to 55 percent of the work force is made up of foreigners and the government is undertaking a huge development plan, all Saudis agree on the need to reduce the foreign work force. Many Saudi women feel they could replace the labor provided by immigrant female workers.
However, they recognize the problem as complex. While most Saudis want to adopt Western technology, there is till stiff resistance to taking over most Western morals and ways of life. The principle of allowing women to work is now generally accepted, especially among the growiing middle class, but there is a division of opinion on what limitations accord with the Saudi concept of Islam.
Both men and women are participating in this debate. Some say that women should be educated but limited thereafter to their "natural functions -- child rearing and homemaking. In this scheme exceptions would be made for female doctors, teachers, and social workers.
Suhailah Zain al-Abidin, a female journalist, recently pointed out that, if married women work, they have to hire foreign female labor to take care of their children, thus removing one of the main arguments in favor of their working. She also maintained that there were too few educated Saudi women at present to make much of a difference in the work force. (Her female opponents facetiously pointed out that she herself now constituted a "working woman" by virtue of her extensive writing.)
Many women, however, want to play a more actively role by extending the fields in which women can work and by broadening their horizons. Fatinah Shakir , professor of sociology at King Abdulaziz University at Jiddah, represents this point of view. She claims that her presence as a faculty member in a classroom full of female university students means that "we have passed the stage of discussion of whether Saudi Muslim women have a right to be educated and to work or not!"
Seh and others have discussed the challenges to working women in ways that would be thoroughly familiar to WEstern woman, addressing such questions as a proper balance between family and work, the need for labor legislation to cover paid maternity leaves, and kindergartens for child care. Dr. Shakir has called for a conference of Saudi women to discuss these issues; if held, it would be the first of its kind in the kingdom.
In January 1980 al-Rajihi Company, a large firm providing limited banking services, opened its first all-female branch in Riyadh. There was a sharp reaction in the press. Some gave it a very warm welcome; others completely rejected the innovation.
The response from women was more unequivocal. Sulaiman al-Awa'id, a regional director of al-Rajihi CompanyM claimed that when news went out of their intention to open a second female brach in Jiddah, the company received over 150 applications from Saudi women in one week, even though they had not advertised the position publicly. Since then at least six more female banking facilities have opened. Madhawi al-Hasun, the first woman bank director in Jiddah, and the holder of a BA degree in liberal arts, unabashedly sees herself as a pioneer opening new horizons for all Saudi women.
In addition to banks, women also work in boutiques, beauty salons, and tailoring shops, to name just a few all- female businesses. There are many similar projects discussed for the future, including travel agencies, airline ticket counters, restaurants, bookshops, and the like. In the face of this rising demand for work, the Saudi Civil Service Council, which advertises for and nominates civil servants, has recently created a special department to deal with women.
Just as interesting as the phenomenon of working women are the reasons they give for desiring to work. These, too, will sound familiar in the West. They include economic needs, boredom with staying at home after receiving an education, the desire for independence, and the breakdown of the extended family. The latter gives the woman greater ability to make decisions affecting herself without quite so much interference from relatives outside of he immediate family. There is also the desire to participate in the building of a modern Saudi Arabia.
By the end of the third five-year plan in 1985, it is expected that some 10, 000 Saudi women will have graduated from Saudi universities.All evidence indicates that these women, in their search for new roles and a new identity, will have an ever more important place in the economy and society of Saudi Arabia.