CDHR’s Commentary: Ninety percent (90%) of unemployed Saudis are women. They are educated, able and eager to earn an honest living, but are denied the right to work. This is happening in a country that employees an estimated 7 million foreign nationals in its public and private sectors. However, after being marginalized by their government and society since the inception of the Saudi state in 1932, women are silent no more. They are not only speaking up against their repression; they are advocating for a reorientation of Saudi society and the government’s political and economically driven discriminatory policies, dressed in religious and traditional excuses no one buys anymore, if they ever did.
Saudi women are demanding not only to work, but also to drive themselves to their places of employment in order to emancipate themselves from financial and mobile dependence on their male relatives the government’s handouts. Despite the resistance of the state’s autocratic and theocratic rulers and traditionalist males to women’s call for equality, women are slowly making their voices heard and some of their demands are being realized, albeit in a very limited way.
One of the major achievements Saudi women have accomplished in recent years is an increase in employment at stores that sell women’s lingerie. A number of years ago, a few courageous women, led by a Jeddah-based economics professor, Reem Asaad, organized a campaign to implement a shelved royal decree that called on businesses that sell women’s lingerie to hire Saudi saleswomen to replace the mostly foreign, male workers. The campaign gained domestic and global attention and propelled the Saudi King to support the women’s movement, or “Bra Revolution,” as described by some media outlets.
Despite Saudi King Abdullah’s support for the lingerie and make-up shops’ requirement to employ only Saudi saleswomen, it is evident that the government is doing very little to enforce this royal decree. Foreign workers continue to dominate industries that Saudi women are supposed to be operating in. In addition, the regime seems hesitant to increase employment opportunities for women in other fields. Instead, the regime is focusing on the “Saudization” of jobs (requiring employers to hire Saudis to replace foreign workers) in fields that are off limits to women.
A conference held on October 3rd in Riyadh, entitled “Maximizing the Employment of Saudi Women,” discussed issues that lead to the exclusion of women from the public and private Saudi workforce such as the strict gender-regulation rules as well as how employers can create work environments for women that remain in line with the religious guidelines and cultural traditions that severely restrict women’s freedom.
Continuing to prevent Saudi women from using their full potentials to build a better and more prosperous country is hurting Saudi Arabia financially, politically and socially. A recent report by the British-based Oxford Strategic Consulting, which was presented at the Riyadh conference, found that increasing the number of Saudi women in the workforce would significantly increase Saudi Arabia’s GNP as well as boost productivity and innovation in the Kingdom. The report even gives suggestions on how to increase women’s participation in the workforce despite the numerous destructive limitations imposed on women by their institutions.
Despite the Saudi regime’s unstated reasoning for restricting women’s full employment, women are a force to be reckoned with and continuing to repress them can only lead to instability and a violent outcome. Like their counterparts in other Arab countries, Saudi women are leading the way in transforming their country’s pre-modern institutions and male-dominated perception and treatment of women. The Saudi oligarchs are pursuing a failed policy toward women. It is hard to understand the Saudi ruling family’s state of mind.
How can the ruling princes not understand that millions of educated Saudi women see the world differently than their nomadic mothers and grandmothers who could not read or write? How can the ruling princes not understand that modern, educated Saudi women spend much of their time on social media, debating their dissatisfaction with the status quo? Saudi women and men did not spend the recently celebrated national day dancing and singing in the streets (as it is not allowed), but instead decried their government’s failure to realize that the Saudi people, especially the younger generations, are part of a fast-changing world in their region and globally.