Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 June 2004
Issue No. 696
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Yes they exist: Saudi women at work

Change is in the air for a new generation of Saudi Arabian women. Karim El-Gawhary speaks to some of the women at the forefront of change in the kingdom

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Social activist Maha Fitaihi spoke at the National Dialogue Council, a meeting on the duties and rights of Saudi women in Medina two weeks ago

Change is in the air for a new generation of Saudi Arabian women. Karim El-Gawhary speaks to some of the women at the forefront of change in the kingdom

Salwa Alireza sounded self-confident on the telephone. "Come and visit me at the office any afternoon," she said, describing how to get to her office, a small advertising agency in the Saudi Arabian Red Sea city of Jeddah.

How does a man meet a woman at work in a country in which women are not permitted to drive; where women can only apply for an identification card with the permission of a father or brother; where women are required to remain covered from head to toe in public; and where the law prohibits unmarried women from sharing a room with people other than relatives?

The frosted glass door at the entrance to the office looks modern. Inside, the cool breeze from the air conditioning contrasts starkly with the heat outside. The desks, of surprisingly modern design, are not occupied. A black and yellow scarf sporting the colours of the local football team, Al-Ittihad, is draped across the back of a chair, but Salwa is nowhere to be seen; she is praying, the porter says.

But I am confused: how does the environment of an ultra- modern office like this one, which would not look out of place in London's business district, harmonise with the traditions of a society in which the call to prayer is strictly observed? And will Salwa shake my hand?

Salwa appears around the corner, hand outstretched, a 26- year-old Saudi Arabian woman, unveiled, relaxed and professional. Registering the baffled look on my face at her uncovered state, she rushes to explain: "As you can see, all windows and doors are made of glass; it would be ridiculous to spend the day taking your abaya on and off depending on who comes into the office," she explained.

Salwa is used to a Western work environment. She studied in England for six years and then worked for the third-largest British advertising agency. "My parents are not getting any younger, so that's why I came back," she explained. She initially had doubts as to whether she would be able to reintegrate into Saudi Arabian society. "When I first started here, I asked my boss about the dress code." His answer was surprising: "Anything goes, as long as you don't turn up in a bikini."

Her initial fears of not being accepted at work turned out to be unfounded. "The opposite turned out to be the case, in fact; my most conservative, bearded colleagues -- the ones whose abaya -wearing wives walk behind them on the street -- are the ones who appreciate my work the most."

Women like Salwa are still an exception in the conservative kingdom. Women make up half of the population, and more than half of all high-school graduates are girls, yet women represent only five per cent of the workforce, most of whom work in the teaching profession. But this trend is increasing. Within the framework of its reform initiative, the government is making an effort to increase the number of working women by developing industrial zones for women and supporting empowerment programmes in the chamber of commerce. These efforts often go against the grain of the prevailing conservatism.

This month, the Chamber of Commerce in Riyadh launched a special women's department, the aim of which is to provide support for Saudi Arabian business women. This move will benefit the economy as a whole, as women are estimated to hold assets to the tune of 92 billion riyals, or almost 14 billion euros.

Salwa's most valuable asset is her Western work experience. She impresses her customers with her British marketing flair. "In the mornings I work on a local cola brand, and on chocolate in the evening," she laughs.

"I'm a workaholic," she adds, with reference to her evenings. She misses some things from her former English life, like going to the movies -- cinemas are banned in the kingdom. She also misses jogging in an English park; now and again, she says, she would like to get into her own car and go for a drive, like she used to in England.

But, she says, there are more important things in life than driving, going to the cinema and being forced to wear an abaya on the street. Religion is an important part of her life. But for her, this means living a good life, and not simply presenting an outward show of piety by "praying 70 million times a day or wearing a veil".

To make up for working long hours, Salwa trains twice a week with a local woman's basketball team, which competes against 15 other local Jeddah teams in an informal league. This year is looking particularly good. Her team, the "Jaguars", are in second place behind the "Sorcerers". "As a woman, it doesn't matter where you live," she says, "what matters is what you do with your life."

The offices of Arab News, one of the two English-language newspapers in the kingdom, is near Salwa's office. Abeer Mishkhas writes her women's issues column from an open- plan, mono-toned office in one of their buildings. Things have changed since she started working here 12 years ago. Back then she sat in a "women-only" office beside this large one, and her work was brought to her desk and collected when finished. The "women-only" office still exists, but now the seven female employees of the Arab News move freely between all offices, albeit fully covered.

"Who knows," says Abeer, "the Muslim editorial offices are located on the second floor, maybe somebody sometime will make a complaint to the "Ministry" [as the religious police as known informally] about the open work environment," she says.

But in general, the employees here have grown accustomed to the presence of female journalists, even outside in the research department, "apart from a few ultra-conservatives who prefer to deal with me per phone", said Abeer. But women sometimes encounter problems in their official capacity as reporters, and may be refused entry to events such as press conferences

But Abeer, the daughter of a Saudi diplomat who grew up in Cairo, refuses to give in so easily. In her column she demands better career opportunities for women and refuses to bow to social pressure from families who impose restrictions on the movements of their womenfolk.

In general, she says, women are on the advance in Saudi Arabia. In the past only a few women were interested in empowerment. During the time of the petro-dollars in the 1970s and 1980s nobody had to work. But today, where even the land of the black gold is in the grips of unemployment and wages are sinking, more and more women are forced to work to support their families.

Abeer is from a so-called "liberal" family. Her father always signs her applications for foreign travel and she had full support when she started working at the newspaper. But she resents having to seek permission from a male family member to undertake even the smallest of projects. "You always have a big brother looking over your shoulder," is how the 36-year-old describes the sensation.

And not being allowed to drive also causes her difficulties. "With my chaotic working hours, where I often work until very late, I have to practically move mountains to find somebody to drive me," she complains. There is no public transport. Women who take taxis are considered prostitutes, she says, and hiring a private driver would eat into her salary. Sometimes her boss complains when she arrives late for work. "I'm a woman who works in Saudi Arabia and am not permitted to drive a car. What do they expect?"

After a long working day, Abeer meets her female colleagues and other women journalists in Nakheel, one of the growing numbers of cafés and restaurants in Jeddah in which men and women can sit together without questions being asked. A warm breeze blows in from the Red Sea, just a few hundred metres from the café. Over a couple of shisha (water pipes) and lemon juice with mint, the discussion turns to the latest terrorist attacks, the state of the economy, and to work. They are as much annoyed by the Western image of the powerless Saudi woman as by their fellow Saudi citizens who want to chain them to the kitchen sink.

"This is a schizophrenic society," says Abeer. It is too conservative for some, while others complain that their country is losing its traditional values and renouncing the true Islam, she continues.

Whether it is basketball-playing Salwa or the female journalists sipping lemon juice in a café on the coast, all of these women have found their particular niche in this male-dominated society. For many of them, the balancing act between their career and the realities of daily life is nothing less than an ordeal.

"Whenever I return to Saudi Arabia after a holiday, I carry anti-depressants in my hand luggage," relates one of the young journalists at the table. Salwa, on the other hand, is more optimistic. "My generation of young Saudi city women no longer sits at home waiting for better times; they take things into their own hands."

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