Workplace battle continues for Saudi women
August 22nd, 2012
11:16 AM ET

Workplace battle continues for Saudi women

By Christoph Wilcke, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Christoph Wilcke is senior researcher for Saudi Arabia at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are his own.

Two Saudi women made Olympic history at the London Games, becoming the first female athletes from that country to participate. Back in Saudi Arabia, though, the sports ministry effectively bans girls and women from practicing sports. The government refused to approve a privately organized women’s Ramadan sporting competition, although organizers said that women participants would be modestly dressed, have their male guardians’ approval, and not mix with men – conditions the Saudi National Olympic Committee imposed for female participation in the Olympics.

Meanwhile, another battle over women’s rights has attracted little outside attention: The push to get women into the workforce, which religious conservatives are fiercely resisting. With four new Labor Ministry decrees in July, the number of jobs open to women has slowly increased, at least in theory. However, these decrees also gave conservatives a victory by reaffirming that strict sex segregation, loosened in 2005, applies to the workplace.

Saudi Arabia’s version of gender equality in Islam boils down to “different, but equal.” Women and men are  considered equal in the sum of their rights and duties, but according to a 2003 treatise by the Saudi religious scholar Dr. Rabee al-Madkhali, God endowed men and women with different rights and duties, men’s “appropriate to their manhood and their strengths and their minds and their willingness to face the dangers,” and women’s according to “what befits their femininity and vulnerability and lacking compared to men in mind, strength and vulnerability in the willingness to face the dangers and hardships.” Whereas men have a duty to provide for women, women in turn must obey their male guardians and care for house and children.

A working woman with her own income challenges that understanding of gender relations.

In the late 1990s, the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, the highest religious authority in the country, said that a woman’s place was at home, and that she should only leave the house in case of necessity.

Some things have changed since then. Women are allowed to own and operate businesses; they have even managed to do away with the male legal proxy that government offices required for female-owned businesses to handle all official interactions. Women have both been elected and appointed to the Jeddah and Dammam chambers of commerce. Since 2008, women no longer need a male guardian to stay alone in hotels.

Since assuming the throne in 2005, King Abdullah has pushed successive labor ministers to get women into the workforce, with some limited success. More than 60 percent of the kingdom’s university students are women, and since 2006, some universities have allowed women to study law. However, a plan proposed in 2009 to allow women to practice law has still not been put into effect.

Saudi women’s participation in the labor force has tripled, to close to 15 percent, over the past two decades, but is still among the lowest in the region. While most Saudi women with jobs work as teachers and in the health profession, the battle over increasing the female workforce actually began with lingerie. Conservatives opposed the king’s plan to replace foreign male sales clerks in lingerie stores with Saudi women. But in July 2011, Labor Minister Adel al-Faqih issued a decree requiring that lingerie stores be staffed only by Saudi women.

Under the decree, the shops could serve only women or families. If the shop is for women only, its windows must be covered; if serving families, they must be open.

This decree, and another issued at the same time that regulates women’s work in factories, contained an innocuous-sounding but revolutionary phrase: “Employing women in these shops does not require the permission of the Labor Ministry or any other party.” Labor officials told the media in May that this meant that women no longer required their male guardians’ approval to work.

Under the Saudi system of male guardianship, the guardians – a woman’s husband, father, brother, or even minor son – have power over their female relatives of all ages, approving or declining their travel, work, marriages, official business, or health care, almost at will.

The conservatives’ line of attack against these liberalizing measures was not about preserving guardianship power, however, but about preventing gender mixing. Muhammad al-‘Arifi, a prominent conservative cleric, warned that women shouldn’t work in places where they could mix with men, sometimes considered a crime in Saudi Arabia, where strict sex segregation still applies in most places.

Some supermarkets, like the Panda chain, had begun to employ female cashiers but were then forced to let them go under pressure from conservative clerics. Now a government agency has joined the opposition to women working. The July 2011 decrees give the Labor Ministry jurisdiction over all matters involving women’s employment. However, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the government morality watchdog with police powers, in June 2012 summoned a Mecca-based supermarket manager to upbraid him for employing female cashiers. The manager immediately fired the women, who had worked for less than a month.

In May, Saudi Arabia’s administrative court, the Board of Grievances, struck down the decree requiring lingerie stores to have women as clerks, on the basis that  serving of both men and women customers violated Islamic legal strictures on sex segregation.

In response, the Labor Ministry on July 18 issued four new decrees, in part to “correct some mistakes” in the application of the initial decrees that were seen as potentially leading to gender mixing. These new decrees, which apply to women’s work in clothing stores, amusement parks, food preparation, and as cashiers more explicitly spell out the business’s obligation to prevent the “mixing” of the sexes and the “prohibition of seclusion between the sexes,” referring to men and women being alone in a closed room. The decrees stipulate that women must have their own work area and rest rooms and may not interact with men, unless the men are part of their larger family group. If the enterprise also employs men, a minimum of three women must be hired.

A change in the labor law in 2005 removed strict gender segregation provisions, requiring only the more vague “compl[iance] with the dictates of Islamic law,” which leaves some room for interpretations about the exact nature of a woman’s work environment. The 2012 decrees are a step back in that they spell out and reinforce strict gender segregation in the workplace. However, this victory for conservatives has been offset by an increase in jobs now open to women.

These are baby steps, but important ones. Women’s unemployment is almost four times as high as men’s, according to government statistics. Close to 80 percent of unemployed women are university graduates, a 2010 study by Booz and Company, a global consultancy, found. The Saudi leadership is testing the waters, but the list of prohibited professions for women, from mining to construction, work in tanneries or electricity production or car repair shops, remains long.

But even with the government, religious and social hurdles, women are increasingly braving opprobrium to seek meaningful work, which is destined to challenge and perhaps ultimately undermine Saudi Arabia’s “different, but equal” façade.

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Topics: Human Rights • Middle East • Saudi Arabia • Women

soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. 100 % ETHIO

    Those who live in glass houses, better if they don't throw stones(their pen) to others.

    In America, we have so many divided Communities, Organisations,....

    August 22, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Reply
    • GarlName

      Im throwin stones and im american. What u gonna do now?

      August 22, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Reply
    • elmar

      Nothing even remotely as bad as what they have in Saudi Arabia. Stop exaggerating.

      August 23, 2012 at 2:58 am | Reply
  2. 100 % ETHIO

    Mr.Wilke, you got "F " for this article. It teaches no one. The concept is, just time waste and you got paid to travel and other expenses to bring this crap, during time shortages and sensitivity.

    August 22, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Reply
    • elmar

      Translation: I don't like what you wrote!

      August 23, 2012 at 2:58 am | Reply
      • 100 % ETHIO

        I did not posted that. Someone did. I usually, don't respond to the comments.

        August 26, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
  3. Sheehan A

    In India, millions of girls are strangled, slowly starved or simply tossed in the trash. Moreover, in India, at least 1,370 girls are aborted every day. As a comparison, some 250 Indians die every day in road accidents. Terrorists killed about six people, on an average, every day in 2009. In the last two decades of economic progress, 10 million girls have died as such in India.

    August 22, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  4. Making a point

    Read this article carefully and pay attention to the careful and mild language used as if the author is like a little kitty cat trying not to offend the male lion ( Saudis that is) lol. If this was any other country in the middle east there would be name calling, attacks, ridicules call for invasion and regime change etc etc etc. But not here. Now thats the power of oil masters. LOL

    August 22, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Reply
  5. BigR

    All societies have there own thing. Leave it to them to decide for themselves just as you would like it to decide for yourselves.

    August 22, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
    • Lauren

      Girls born in Saudi Arabia don't have a choice what society they are born into.

      August 22, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply
      • Beverly Kaeintz

        Exactly.

        October 26, 2013 at 12:48 am |
    • johndcross1

      You are correct provided they don't encroach on other nations, like what Bin Ladin did to the USA.

      August 23, 2012 at 12:21 am | Reply
    • Lisa-Marie

      That is cultural relativism at its worst – so what you are saying is that Saudi can enslave half the population and we have no right to judge – you are wrong. If we took that view there would be no progress anywhere.

      August 23, 2012 at 2:13 am | Reply
      • Beverly Kaeintz

        I couldn't say it better.

        October 26, 2013 at 12:49 am |
  6. redwhiteblue

    The Prophet Muhammad would be proud that 1/2 the entire population of Saudi Arabia has been stripped of basic legal protection, the right to travel without a male guardian, the right to make personal decisions, the right of freedom of worship, the right to own property, the right to choose one's own clothing and not wear a tent, etc. etc. The fruits of islam.

    August 22, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Reply
    • Nafee Sharif

      Please do not equate what Prophet said and how clerics interpret (and try to enforce) it.
      Cheers!

      August 23, 2012 at 7:55 am | Reply
  7. johndcross1

    The Muslim Clerics are the problem in all islamic nations. They are the ones dictating and deciding the morals and virtues of their population. Take for example in Saudi Arabia. The king is always overruled by their wahabi indoctrinated clerics. It just shows he has no balls and guts to say no to these idiots!

    August 23, 2012 at 12:16 am | Reply
    • Nafee Sharif

      It is not about "having balls". One can not turn the society upside down overnight. Changes in perceptions take years, sometimes generations (specially when they were so hardly and furiously engraved in everything they did). If anybody tries to change the rules overnight (to show that he has balls) it would result in an upheaval, anarchy and vandalism. Changes need to be brought slowly and gradually.

      All we need to do is praise the baby steps (as mentioned above) and do healthy criticism where required, IMHO!

      August 23, 2012 at 7:52 am | Reply
  8. Nafee Sharif

    Having interacted with Saudi society for my entire life (and living full time for 7 years), i would just like to mention that Saudi society is not yet ready for overnight changes of such laws.

    People who are 50 and above (and generally the decision makers/influencers) in families were born and brought up in 70s and 80s. Like anywhere in the world, it is near impossible to change the perceptions of people at large of this age. The younger generation (35+) is partially ok with these changes. The bright side is the set of young people who anticipate and want these changes. In few years, these young adults will be 30/40/50 and that's when the Saudi society will be fully ready for such law changes.

    Slow and steady wins the race.

    August 23, 2012 at 8:06 am | Reply
  9. j. von hettlingen

    It's the religious and conservative forces that prevent women from developing. Elsewhere in the Arab world, women are less oppressed.

    August 23, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Reply
  10. JosephMcCarthy/Quigley/LyndsieGraham/krm1007©™/JoeCollins/J.Foster Dulles/Marine5484/OldManClark

    I am the same guy. I am a useless piece of camel dung. I post anti-American, anti GB, anti-Semite, anti-India, anti-modern anything because I am a good Moslem. I have stolen Patrick’s moniker because I am so ashamed of myself and I post the most stupid comments because I am an imbecile. When people get angry with me, I claim they are the stupid ones. If I am not careful, my brain will explode because it is so full of hate.

    August 23, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Reply
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    September 11, 2012 at 8:28 am | Reply

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