For Saudi Arabia’s women, change is a gradual and cautious process

For Saudi Arabia’s women, change is a gradual and cautious process
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Historically, the public role for women has been on the margins in Saudi Arabia. But after decades of gradual change, exciting things are starting to happen. If things carry on in the current way, Saudi Arabia can expect some political and economic benefits. Abeer Mishkhas provides this guest analysis.

Never have the women of Saudi Arabia been so much in the spotlight as over the past week. For the first time in history they were able to vote and run for municipal seats throughout the country. On Sunday 13th of December, they went to polling stations to cast their votes for over 7,000 candidates, of whom 979 were women.

It was the culmination of a long fight by women activists and, although it might not seem much to people living outside the conservative Kingdom, it was achieved in the face of a very strict patriarchal code. For the empowerment of Saudi women this was definitely a significant step forward.

Saudi women are by no means liberated, nor are they fully independent. There are too many restrictions that stand in their way, and these are not solely put in place by the government. Actually, most of these restrictions come from a deeply conservative tribal society which still views women as the subordinates of men who should be controlled and observed to keep them on the right track.

Such a condescending view still prevails in large parts of the Kingdom, yet not without a growing challenge from women and even from some men.

Slowly, but surely

Since opening girls’ schools in the 1960s, changes in the society have been gradual. But from schools to universities to sending the first female students on scholarships to study abroad, every change has opened new doors.

Enlightened families had a part in setting the stage for further participation of women in public life. In a very slow and very cautious development, women were soon to become teachers and doctors, two fields they were allowed to occupy, and this remained a rare exception for many years.

There were a few examples of women working in the media or in acting, but again it was due to having an enlightened father to help make that possible, as it was virtually out of the question without male support. This is the crucial point about the lives of Saudi women, how much support they encounter from men.

It shows their dependence and the social pressure on them to obey their male guardians and relatives. For Saudi women to change that dependence, they have a long fight ahead as men are holding on to their right to control them. Driving is an example, since it all depends on getting a man’s permission.

However, the picture is beginning to look very different. Women now represent over 50 % of university graduates, 16% of the workforce (of which 5% are in the private sector) according to the latest results by the Central Department of Statistics and Information.

Jobs have opened up for women in retail, hospitality and the media. They now work as diplomats and members of the Advisory (Shura) Assembly and also (since 2013) as lawyers. The role of councillor is just the latest in a list of innovations.

Some ground to cover

So far, the actual input by women in all these areas has been notable, yet hindered (as one would expect) by male dominance over decision-making bodies.

In the business sector, Saudi women have much bigger portfolios. According to the Ministry of Labour, women have around 130 thousand businesses (trade registry), they have billions of riyals worth of savings in Saudi banks, and they are working as financial advisors, executives, and consultants.

For example, Dr Nahed Taher has become the first woman to serve as GM of Gulf One Investment Bank. Yet despite the fact that women flourish in the finance and business sectors, experts warn that their savings in the banks – which are worth around 19 billion Saudi Riyals – are relatively dormant and not being invested properly.

Female investors are absent from the big industrial projects and other schemes that could benefit the country’s economy and increase the value of their assets. Dalal Al-Kaaki, a financial expert, told the Okaz newspaper that women investors lack vision and a knowledge of how to manage and invest their funds. Nashwa Taher, chief of the commerce committee in Jeddah’s Chamber of Commerce, told Okaz that women’s participation in the trade sector is weaker than one might hope.

If we compare Saudi women’s gradual development to that of women in other Gulf countries, we can see they have a lot of ground to make up. A quick comparison shows that Emirati women occupy 66% of official posts (government jobs), 30% of which are in senior posts which include a ministerial brief.

Also, the UAE have recently voted in a female speaker of parliament, Dr Amal Al-Qubaisi, which is a first for the Gulf and for the Arab world as a whole. In Bahrain and in Oman women are serving as ministers, and in Kuwait they have been running for parliamentary elections for a decade.

When they see their sisters in the Gulf, Saudi women are well aware they have a lot of catching up to do. They know this is the battle of their lives.

About the author:

Abeer Mishkhas is a writer and journalist living in UK. She is interested in women’s issues in Saudi Arabia, as well as the arts and culture in general and a keen traveller. She also worked at the English daily Arab News in Jeddah and was in charge of the weekly section. Abeer had a column on the opinion page which focused mainly on women issues. She interviewed the first Shura women members and was the first female film director and female lawyer. Abeer also regularly collaborates with pioneering Saudi artists. 

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