Saudi women will drive but face bumpy road to empowerment

Mervat Bukhari, a Saudi petrol station supervisor, at the petrol station where she works in Khobar, some 400 kilometers east of Riyadh. (AFP)
Updated 20 June 2018
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Saudi women will drive but face bumpy road to empowerment

KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia: Mervat Bukhari, a force of nature draped head-to-toe in Islamic niqab, braved insults and taunts to become the first Saudi woman to work at a gas station, something unimaginable not long ago.
The kingdom is in the midst of reforms that mark the biggest cultural shake-up in its modern history.
Kickstarted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the reforms include the historic decision allowing women to drive from June, attend soccer games and take on jobs that once fell outside the narrow confines of traditional gender roles.
But the backlash faced by women like Bukhari illustrates how newfound empowerment is a potential social lightning rod in a country unaccustomed to such visibility for women.
When Bukhari, 43 and a mother of four, was promoted as supervisor of a gas station in eastern Khobar city last October, insults began pouring in on social media with the hashtag “Saudi women don’t work at gas stations.”
Bukhari, previously employed in a junior role by the same parent company, was forced to go on the defensive, telling critics she was in a managerial position and not physically handling fuel nozzles.
“I am a supervisor. I don’t fill gas myself,” she reasoned, seeking to win a modicum of respectability for a job that class-conscious Saudi men disdain.
“Women today have the right to do any work.”
Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 reform plan for a post-oil era seeks to elevate women to nearly one-third of the workforce, up from about 22 percent now.
Government statistics also put more than one million Saudi women as currently looking to enter the workforce.
The reforms have seen the Saudi labor market slowly open up to women, introducing them to jobs that were once firmly the preserve of men.
The social change, catalyzed in large measure by what experts characterise as economic pain owing to a protracted oil slump, has introduced a series of firsts.
Saudi media has championed in recent months the first woman restaurant chef, first woman veterinarian and even the first woman tour guide.
But women face sobering realities — despite often being better qualified than men.
“Saudi women are better educated, but less mobile, less employed and vastly underpaid,” Karen Young, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told AFP.
Average monthly salaries in the private sector are close to 8,000 Saudi riyals ($2,134, 1,748 euros) for men, and only 5,000 riyals for women, according to research firm Jadwa.
But Riyadh is seeking to change that through what appears to be social engineering.
The decision to allow women to drive after a decades-long ban could give women the much-needed mobility to join the workforce.
For the first time, women are seen alongside men in jazz music concerts and in mixed-gender restaurants.
“The well-known expression: ‘You are a woman, cover your face’ seems to be disappearing from our society,” human rights lawyer Abdulrahman Al-Lahim wrote recently in Okaz newspaper.
But Saudi activists say social change will only be cosmetic without dismantling the rigid guardianship system, which requires that women seek permission from a male relative to study, travel and other activities.
That leaves many vulnerable to the whims of a controlling father, a violent husband or a vengeful son.
Horror stories have regularly surfaced.
Women inmates are often reported to be stuck in prisons after completing their terms because they were not claimed by their guardians.
One Saudi woman told AFP how she was stuck in limbo, unable to even renew her passport, when her father, her only male guardian, slipped into a coma after an accident.
“If I could choose between the right to drive or the right to end guardianship, I would choose the latter,” a women’s activist said on the condition of anonymity.
Saudi women now no longer need male permission to start business.
Saudi Arabia also recently annulled the “house of obedience” article in the marriage law, which grants a husband the right to summon his wife to his home against her will.
The reform introduces a novel concept in married life: mutual consent.
“This is not a revolution, this is evolution,” Hoda Al-Helaissi, a member of the advisory Shoura Council, told AFP, referring to newfound social liberties.
“It’s a rite of passage for women.”
Back at Bukhari’s home in neighboring Dammam city, she embraced her youngest son Mohammed — who stood by her even as her brothers decried her gas station job as a shocking breach of tradition.
But the 16-year-old prefers to hide his mother’s job from his peers, hoping to protect her from even more insults.
“Maybe five years from now it will be normal to see women at gas stations,” he said, kissing his mother’s hand.


Saudi businesswomen eye greater role in the economy with end to driving ban

The end of the driving ban is expected to help bring an economic windfall for Saudi women. (Shutterstock)
Updated 23 June 2018
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Saudi businesswomen eye greater role in the economy with end to driving ban

  • The historic move is a huge step forward for businesswomen in the Saudi Arabia, says businesswoman
  • A recent survey by the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce indicated that transportation was a major concern holding Saudi women back from joining the labor market

The end of the driving ban will boost women’s financial power and allow them to play a bigger role in economic and social diversification in line with Vision 2030, prominent businesswomen said on Friday.

Hind Khalid Al-Zahid was the first Saudi woman designated as an executive director — for Dammam Airport Company — and also heads the Businesswomen Center at the Eastern Province Chamber of Commerce and Industry. 

She sees the historic move as a huge step forward for businesswomen in the Kingdom.

“Women being allowed to drive is very important; of course this will help a lot in sustainable development as the lifting of the ban on women driving came as a wonderful opportunity to increase women’s participation in the workforce,” she told Arab News on Friday, ahead of the end of the ban on Sunday.

She added that women in the job market are under-represented; they make up to 22 percent of the national workforce of about six million according to official estimates. Lifting the ban will help to take women’s representation in the workforce to 30 percent by 2030, she said.

“This is not just the right thing to do for women’s emancipation, but also an essential step in economic and social development as part of the reforms,” she said.

She said that there were different obstacles in increasing women’s participation in the workforce and other productive activities, and the driving ban was one of them. It was a strategic issue that needed to be addressed on a priority basis. With the issue resolved, it would help immensely in giving Saudi women better representation as they would help to diversify the Saudi economy and society.

She said that women could contribute hugely to the workforce and labor market as half of Saudi human resources were female, and unless allowed to excel in different sectors it would not be possible to do better, mainly because of restricted mobility.

A recent survey by the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce indicated that transportation was a major concern holding Saudi women back from joining the labor market.

Nouf Ibrahim, a businesswoman in Riyadh, said: “It will surely boost female economic participation and help increase women’s representation in the workforce immensely. It will also help to reduce the overall national unemployment rate as most of the unemployed are women and many of them are eligible as university graduates.”

She echoed the opinion that the move would help to bring an economic windfall for Saudi women, making it easier for them to work and do business, and thus play a bigger and better role that would help economic and social diversification in line with Saudi Vision 2030.

“Being able to drive from Sunday onwards after the ban is lifted will be a wonderful experience. Earlier we were dependent on a male family member and house driver to take us to workplace, to the shopping center, school or other required places for some work, now we can drive and that will allow active participation in productive work,” Sulafa Hakami, a Saudi woman working as the digital communication manager with an American MNC in Riyadh, told Arab News.

“Saudi women can now share effectively the bigger and better responsibilities,” she said.