Saudi women make many strides, still face challenges ahead
KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia - Mervat Bukhari, a force of nature draped head to toe in an Islamic niqab, braved insults and taunts when she became the first Saudi woman to work at a petrol station, something unimaginable not long ago.
Saudi Arabia, where conservatives once bridled at even limited freedoms for women, is in the midst of reforms that mark the biggest cultural shake-up in its modern history.
Kick-started by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, the reforms include the historic decision allowing women to drive beginning in June, attend sporting events and take on jobs that once fell outside the narrow confines of traditional gender roles.
The backlash faced by women such as Bukhari, however, illustrates how newfound empowerment is a potential social lightning rod in a country unaccustomed to such visibility for women.
When Bukhari, 43 and the mother of four, was promoted as supervisor of a petrol station in Khobar last October, insults poured in on social media with the hashtag “Saudi women don’t work at petrol 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 petrol 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.”
Crown 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% now. Government statistics also put more than 1 million Saudi women as looking to enter the workforce.
The reforms have seen the Saudi labour market slowly open to women, introducing them to jobs that were once firmly the preserve of men.
The social change, catalysed in large measure by what experts characterise as economic pain owing to a protracted oil slump, has introduced a series of firsts.
Saudi media have championed, in recent months, the first woman restaurant chef, first woman veterinarian and even the first woman tour guide.
Women still 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, said.
Salaries in the sector are about 8,000 Saudi riyals ($2,134) for men and 5,000 ($1,333) riyals for women, research firm Jadwa said. Saudi Arabia ranked 138th out of 144 countries in the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum on gender parity.
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 at jazz music concerts and in mixed-gender restaurants, as the influence of the once-feared religious police — notorious for enforcing gender segregation — appears to be waning.
“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 in the pro-government Okaz newspaper.
The reforms have had an unwitting consequence, observers note — competition with arch-nemesis Iran to be more liberal over women’s rights. Tehran recently relaxed its crackdown on women failing to wear the compulsory headscarf.
Saudi activists say social change will only be cosmetic without dismantling the kingdom’s 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 and 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 talked about how she was stuck in limbo, unable to even renew her passport, when her father, her only male guardian, was in a coma after an accident.