Monday, April 14, 2008

Giving Saudi women jobs and respect

By Sabria S. Jawhar

The Saudi Gazette

AT the Saudi Gazette I am fortunate to have editors who value my work and my presence in the editorial department. Working alongside my male colleagues has never been an issue.

That’s why it’s good news to hear that the Ministry of Labor has issued new regulations allowing men and women to mix in government offices. I can only assume that the private sector will follow. I am sure that some families will now reconsider whether to allow their daughters, wives or sisters enter the Saudi workforce. But the benefits from this new decision far outweigh any of the negatives especially if, as the decree says, Islamic regulations are taken into consideration.

But this shouldn’t be considered some great leap in modernizing our society. For one, it’s long overdue. We’re just catching up with the rest of the world, Saudi society or no Saudi society. Here we are with the first decade of the 21st century almost over and we can’t even give women the right to work in lingerie shops or give them the right to drive a car.

And we still must address the issue that 60 percent of Saudi women graduate from universities but only 7 percent can get jobs.

By contrast as many as 40 percent of the female population in other Gulf countries are working. If Saudi Arabia is investing so much in getting women educated, especially with full scholarships available for women in universities abroad, then what is the point if jobs are not available for them?
One wonders why Saudis are comfortable with their women traveling to Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates for jobs they should have in Saudi Arabia.

And that’s the issue. Jobs are available, both in government and private sectors. We just aren’t serious about filling them with women.

What’s more important is that Saudi Arabia suffers socially and economically by refusing women the right to work anywhere they choose. By working and contributing to the economy (and imagine if they were free from the economic constraints of hiring private drivers), women provide a second income for their family. They spend more money to contribute to the local economy. And they develop a strong sense of self-respect and a stronger sense of pride and confidence.

And this brings me to the issue that Saudi women need a greater say in their economic and social future. Most Gulf countries have a fair sampling of women in elected positions. Only Saudi Arabia, the Land of the Two Holy Mosques, to which all Arab nations look for guidance, stands alone in shutting women out of the political process.

The Shoura Council has 150 men but only six part-time female advisers. Advisers, mind you, not full-time participating members. Not a single Saudi municipal council has a female member. And, of course, women are not permitted to vote in local elections.

In our society, women - their minds, their bodies, their role in the family - are so tied to a man’s honor, that we have become paralyzed in moving forward to provide them wider opportunities.
For some reason, we are being pulled kicking and screaming into modernizing our society. Yes, we Saudis struggle daily with the concept of modernization. We equate modernization with Westernization or becoming too American. As if wearing a pair of faded jeans is somehow surrendering to the modern Western culture. The same is true of having women mix with men in the workplace or allow them a full seat on the Shoura Council or being elected to the municipal council.

It’s modernizing how we do business and engage in the political process, but it’s not surrendering our cultural or religious values.

We are in the middle of building six economic cities. But what to do with them? Have them stand as a monument to male superiority by denying women the right to participate? Or are we going to open these economic cities to the entire Saudi society?


Bird of Shadows said...

I agree with you Sabria for with the argument you mention. We are long overdue in including females in the workforce and our social life in general. Can you please provide a link for the Ministry of labor regulation regarding the issue? was it issued by a royal decree? (as part of new labor regulation for example). It is quite strange that such a regulation would be issued without much protests from the religious establishment

sabria jawhar said...

Dear Bird of Shadow, here are the links that talked about the change in regulations.§ion=0&article=108805&d=10&m=4&y=2008