Women in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For the first time, women in Saudi Arabia are being allowed to work in pharmacies, herbal medicine stores and optical stores in malls. The new opportunities are part of a plan, called Saudi Vision 2030, to diversify its economy away from a reliance on oil by utilizing a traditionally untapped resource: women.
The ultra-conservative, Wahhabi nation, known for having repressive laws surrounding women, has committed itself to increasing female employment rates from 22% to 30% mainly by reforming laws. “They are marketing it as a social reform but it is very much tied to the economic situation in Saudi Arabia,” Adam Coogle, a Middle Eastern researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told The Media Line.
Saudi Arabia, which has a population of roughly 31 million, is a vital member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Around half of its gross domestic product is based on the oil and gas sector, which also accounts for roughly 85% of its export earnings.
The oil-dependent country has been in an economic slump due to globally low oil prices, forcing the Kingdom, along with other oil-rich nations like Kuwait, to cut many welfare benefits and subsidies.
“They had to cut salaries over the entire nation,” Isaac Cohen, the founder of the S.A.F.E. Movement, which promotes more opportunities for women in Saudi Arabia, told The Media Line. “If Saudi Arabia wants to reach its 2030 goal, they need to integrate women into the workforce and fast.”
In some cases, the government has declared certain professions like working in lingerie or cosmetic shops, as jobs only for women. They have also partnered with companies like Glowork, which works to connect Saudi women with university degrees to various job opportunities.
According to Ghaida Almutai, a supervisor at Glowork, the Saudi government also mandated that any company with more than 15 women must have a child care center and they even increased maternity leave from four to 10 weeks. “They also expanded areas of study,” Almutai said. “For example, women can now study law and architecture.”
In addition to these reforms, the country scaled back its male guardianship laws – laws which require all Saudi women to have either a brother, father, or son make all legal decisions for them – by formally removing the need for Saudi women to have a male guardian’s approval on where she can and cannot work.
According to Coogle, often these companies do not respect this change by continuing to seek approval from a woman’s guardian on their own volition. “In the past, women couldn’t work in retail and it was something related to the community because they didn’t accept women working in a public place,” Almutai, told The Media Line.
Working as a woman in Saudi Arabia is not easy as the country, which bases its legal system on Sharia – or Islamic law – is known for having strict laws surrounding women. All Saudi women must have a male guardian, usually a family member, who makes all legal decisions for her. Without approval, a woman cannot travel, marry, study, or even undergo medical operations.
Women in the kingdom are not allowed to drive and must be veiled in public. Only in December 2015 were women given the right to vote. “Many of the men think women should be making babies and getting married and that’s about it,” Cohen said.
Traditionally, Saudi women have worked in a limited number of sectors – like education – and currently comprise about 22% of the employment market. Until recently, they were excluded from industries like retail, hospitality and even law. “Women can’t work in many sectors of the economy,” Cohen said. “Anything that involves working with or on men is prohibited. They are not equals.”
According to Cohen, lack of access to autonomous transportation, constantly needing guardian approval, and strict job restrictions that involve gender segregation or gender bias are the top deterrents for Saudi women looking for employment. While the country is keen on increasing female employment rates within the kingdom, some analysts, however, see the goal as half-hearted.
“They are overselling it,” Adam Coogle, a Middle Eastern researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line. “They are marketing it as a major social reform for women in the country but if you look at the goals, it aims to increase employment from 22% to 30%.”
“That’s a 14 year goal to marginally improve the rate of women’s employment,” Coogle added. Saudi Arabia is known for having one of the lowest rankings on the Global Gender Gap Report, which is an annual index measuring gender equality compiled by the World Economic Forum. In 2015, Saudi Arabia was ranked 134. This year, despite the employment reforms over the past few years, the country dropped to 141 out of 144