The column was originally published in ARAB NEWS
As more Saudi women attempt to enter the work force, they discover obstacles thrown in their path as they pound the pavement looking for employment.
There are the obvious problems: No transportation to go to job interviews. Very limited access to private businesses because women are stopped at the guard office. No family members willing to see their beloved treasure mixing with men.
I’ll add another obstruction: The old guard, an entrenched group of men who insist they know what is best for women and who consider themselves as role models for Saudi society. It is the issue of role models that I will get to shortly.
Consider the urgent issue of female unemployment in Saudi Arabia. An estimated 86 percent of the job seekers collecting an allowance from the Hafiz program are women. A majority of these women are university degree holders and live in large urban areas. Only about 15 percent of the work force consists of women. About 1.2 million Saudi women between the ages of 20 and 35 are looking for work.
The deck is stacked against Saudi women to find meaningful employment for the reasons I have already mentioned. But the real insult is the conservatives who portray themselves as paragons of religious order but seem to have forgotten the basic teachings of the Holy Qur’an.
Solving the issue of transportation and getting one’s foot in the door of a prospective employee take a little initiative, gumption and persistence. Running head first into the old guard who still view camels as the only honorable mode of transportation is problematic.
These are the guys who attempted to browbeat the minister of labor to ban women from taking jobs in retail shops. Women won that battle because common sense prevailed in the Labor Ministry. Now I can go into any cosmetic shop and feel more comfortable because women are using their own skin and my skin to test makeup while selling me a product. I can’t do that with a man, so I tip my hat, or really my hijab, to those practical people in the ministry.
The old guard says they want to protect women, keep them at home and away from the dangers of, I guess, Saudi society. They know what is best and they should be revered.
Then I think about the television preacher accused of beating to death his 5-year-old daughter because she reportedly had an “attitude” and he didn’t like her morals.
The baby’s death may have been intentional or unintentional. We don’t know because all the facts are not available. But I think to myself that if this is an example of the men who went to the ministry and attempted to stop women from working in shops or preventing them from giving women an active role as citizens, it raises the question of how I can trust the opinion of people who kill their own daughters.
Of course, the girl’s fatal beating is an individual case and shouldn’t be taken as an indictment on all television preachers. Yet there is the connection. This television preacher talks to his audience, dispenses advice on family matters, and no doubt has a following. Are these the guys we want as role models?
I prefer the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). I see a loving father and loving husband. I see a husband who held his wife on his shoulders so she could see a group of African performers walk into Madinah. I see the man who asked his neighbors to keep his wife company. I see a father who loved and respected his daughters so much that he offered his space for them to sit when they visited. I see a grandfather who kept his head bowed in prayer while allowing his grandchildren to crawl all over him. The Prophet is a real role model and any woman will follow his example.
Contrast this to preachers who get paid to be on television and want to make my life miserable by imposing requirements on me that have nothing to do with Islam.
These fellows use women to fulfill their agenda because they perceive women as the weakest link in Saudi society. The young girl who died was in the custody of her father and stepmother. She didn’t have her mother there to protect her. The girl’s death should force us to reconsider not only who we are following as role models, but also our current child custody laws that inevitably give custody of children in divorce cases to the father.
In Islam, children should be in the custody of the mother until seven years old. The dead girl was five. Who decided in this case not to follow Islam? Who decided that the father was better equipped than the mother to raise the girl? And will I forever be at the mercy of a segment of society that thinks it is better for me to shut up and stay at home?