A more equal future for Saudi women
Despite its strict patriarchal social structure and gender segregation, life for women in Saudi Arabia is beginning to shift in ways that seem small to an outside observer but mark significant changes for the ultraconservative Gulf state.
Increasingly worldly, well-educated Saudi women, who have historically had no choice but to don the hijab in public, are challenging longstanding conventions. Inspired by access to the internet and travel abroad, a new generation of young, ambitious women is steadily pushing the boundaries of Wahhabi-imposed dress codes.
The government has provided a small amount of room in which to experiment, especially as more women join the workforce. The number of working women in Saudi Arabia rose by 50% from 2010-15.
With the notorious religious police stripped of the power to arrest people for alleged immodest dress, dozens of female entrepreneurs are selling colourful abayas and robes reminiscent of the creative designs found across the Gulf in Iran.
This creeping liberalisation has not happened in a vacuum. The precipitous drop in global oil prices has forced Saudi Arabia’s leadership to diversify the economy and getting women into the workforce will be indispensable to accomplishing this.
One component of Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s plan to become less dependent on oil revenues, involves forming closer ties and partnerships with Canadian, US, British and European firms. These potential economic partners have far more liberal and egalitarian views on gender and the current Saudi system of gender discrimination threatens to be a major obstacle to these efforts.
The kingdom’s international critics increasingly call attention to incidents of sexism in Saudi Arabia, and foreign companies that find themselves implicated have to answer difficult questions at home. What should be most concerning to the Saudi government is the risk that these cultural differences prove too much for potential investors to overlook. Looking beyond Saudi women, the difficulties facing international businesswomen operating in the country is an obvious disadvantage.
However, by its own conservative standards, Saudi Arabia has made progress. Women are now allowed to work in the hospitality and retail sectors and female lawyers were granted licences to practise starting in 2013. They can be hired as newspaper editors and television show hosts. More areas of study, including law and architecture, are now open to women in Saudi universities.
Saudi women have proven themselves whenever they have had the opportunity. Business leaders such as Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, who formerly led the Riyadh branch of the London-based Harvey Nichols department store and now sits on Uber’s public policy advisory board, have made a name for Saudi women in the business world.
The government has tried to make commuting to work easier for women, who are still not allowed to drive, including its recent $3.5 billion investment in Uber. Providing commuting options will never be as effective as taking much bolder steps, such as allowing women to drive.
Saudi Arabia is not the only conservative Islamic country to face difficult questions on women’s rights but neighbours such as Jordan and Oman can provide examples for approaching these issues.
Oman ratified legislation in 2005 that opened considerable opportunities for women within the confines of sharia, and Jordan is home to a robust feminist movement instrumental in pushing gender boundaries. Kuwaiti women obtained the vote in 2005.
Tunisia has been ahead of much of the Arab world, legislating progressive women’s rights measures in 1956, banning polygamy and allowing women to seek divorce. A law passed this year in Tunisia aims to make sure 50% of local council seats are occupied by women.
None of these countries have perfect records in family law or women’s rights in the workplace but they do have strong women’s movements that tirelessly strive for change.
Saudi Arabia should allow its budding social movements for women’s rights to take shape and influence the fabric of society. All the royal decrees in the world will not secure real liberties or participation unless ultraconservative Saudis can be convinced of their merits. Beyond driving, that means continuing to limit the power of the religious authorities, freeing jailed activists and supporting these movements in their push for changes.
Changing social attitudes will pave the way for cultural acceptance of women taking a greater role in society. For the Saudi economy to truly engage with the global marketplace beyond the oil industry, it must catch up with the rest of the region and the planet. That means removing the obstacles keeping half of the population from contributing to what could be a very bright economic future.