Tuesday, 12 February 2008
By Sabria S Jawhar
It excites me to no end to think that Saudi Arabia is on the verge of a renaissance as our government invests in huge projects like Petro Rabigh, which is part of a $500 billion investment project that promises us millions of new jobs, new cities and new universities. We're moving at lightning speed to diversify our country's economy that promises to rival many Western countries working on similar projects. We certainly have the drive and ambition to successfully accomplish our economic goals. But our social advances are lagging far behind our successes in the business sector.
It alarms and saddens me to hear about the businesswoman arrested and jailed by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice because she was meeting with a man not related to her at a Starbucks in Riyadh. She works for a business in the same building as the coffee shop. When the power went out she and her colleague went downstairs to Starbucks' family section to continue their meeting. It was not long afterward that commission members arrested her and took her to jail where she was strip-searched and held for several hours before her husband came to retrieve her.
What does this have to do with pursuing big projects that will boost our economy?
We are relying more and more on a women's professional workforce. Journalism, public relations, marketing, banking and a variety of private sector businesses are seeing increasing numbers of women taking positions of responsibility. A 2005 government study concluded that women make up 14 percent of the Saudi workforce but it continues to climb at a rapid rate.
If we continue to depend on professional women to work and contribute to the economy why are we placing obstacles at every turn? We already are hampered by severe transportation problems.
Now we must be careful about where and how we conduct our business.
As professionals, it is not practical for women to conduct business in hotel conference or meeting rooms and some public buildings. And depending on the policy of a private company, there may be no comfortable place to meet with male colleagues or clients.
The alternative, and not unreasonable in the slightest, is to conduct business in a public place in full view of everyone. Hotel lobbies have been favored for many years as a neutral meeting place, but it's not the most practical place because lobbies usually lack work tables and electrical outlets for computers.
Saudi newspapers report that the woman arrested by commission members at Starbucks was accused of "khalwa," or being in seclusion with an unrelated man, which is a moral offense. I'm not sure how being in a crowded family section at Starbucks qualifies as seclusion, but maybe the commission has its own definition.
Apparently Al-Jawhara Al-Angari, from the National Society for Human Rights, feels the same way. She said recently that the woman was not in a state of khalwa because she was in a public place with many people.
I remember not long ago being interviewed by two women members of a U.S. think tank. They had talked to Saudi professional women in Riyadh and Jeddah about the progress of women's rights. We agreed to meet in the family section of a Starbucks in Jeddah. I didn't know at the time whether their group would include any men. I didn't think to ask.
It turns out the interviewing team was all-female. But what if a man was part of that team? Would I have committed khalwa? It chills me to the bone that an innocent, but productive and important interview might never have materialized if I knew a male member would be present and I feared being caught.
The media often tout the accomplishments of Saudi women graduating from universities with degrees and post-graduate certificates. And we often cite statistical data of the rising numbers of women in the workplace. Yet it's a hollow triumph if we punish them for doing their jobs.