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

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.


Sunsilk’s Color Run returns to Riyadh

‘The Happiest 5k on the Planet’ is set to turn Riyadh colorful on Oct. 26. (Photos/Supplied)
Updated 18 min 27 sec ago

Sunsilk’s Color Run returns to Riyadh

  • The General Entertainment Authority is bringing The Color Run back to the Kingdom following the success of the Alkhobar event

RIYADH: The Color Run presented by Sunsilk is returning to Saudi Arabia! The countdown to “The Happiest 5k on the Planet” is on, with The Color Run bursting onto the streets of Riyadh on Oct. 26.
The event is part of the GEA’s efforts to attract top entertainment to Saudi Arabia. The Color Run — now the largest running series in the world — will be making its vibrant return to the Kingdom’s two biggest cities, with over 15,000 expected to participate in each location.
The Riyadh event follows the Kingdom’s extremely popular inaugural Color Run, which took place in Alkhobar in March and saw over 10,000 people run, jog, walk and skip their way along the 5 km course.
To date, The Color Run has been hosted in more than 40 countries with over 7 million runners participating in the event. It is untimed and sees thousands of participants covered from head to toe in an array of different colors throughout the course before collecting their medals at the finish line. The only rule is that those taking part must cross the finish line covered in color and have fun while doing it!
The non-competitive run is not only an opportunity to create perfect memories — and Instagram posts — but also serves as a celebration of health, happiness and individuality. The GEA, a core pillar under the Saudi government, is supporting the event as part of its continued efforts to enrich the lifestyle of residents as part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plans and in line with the nation’s Quality of Life Program 2020.
The first of the upcoming events will be hosted as part of Riyadh Season, considered to be the biggest entertainment event in the capital city, with activities catering to sports, music, theater, fashion and much more.

FASTFACT

Tickets available at ksa.thecolorrun.com, children go free!

Ahmed Al-Mehmadi, executive director of communications at the GEA said: “We are thrilled to be bringing The Color Run presented by Sunsilk to Riyadh. We witnessed an incredible turnout in Alkhobar and we have every confidence this event will attract even more people who want to engage in a healthy activity that combines fun and exercise. Its vibrancy matches the aims of the GEA and the Quality of Life Program 2020 objectives to support and create new options that boost participation across cultural, entertainment and sports activities.”
Kristen Biegler, spokesperson for The Color Run said: “Since its inception in 2012, The Color Run has had become a global phenomenon, and we are very excited to be returning to Saudi Arabia. The response in Alkhobar was truly amazing and we are extremely excited to bring ‘The Happiest 5k on the Planet’ to Riyadh. Our top rule is that everyone has fun — it is up to you whether you run, jog, walk or even skip your way to the finish line.”
Once the 5 km is over, the fun will continue at the Finish Festival, a larger-than-life celebration equipped with music, dance-offs, fun and games and massive color throws, which create millions of vivid color combinations!