Saudi women bridge the gender gap

Saudi women bridge the gender gap November 11, 2008

A U.A.E.-based newspaper, The National, published a story yesterday about increasing numbers of Saudi women entering the workplace (read here). While this isn’t the first story written about Saudi women in the workforce, it is one of the best written ones I’ve seen. There is no presumption of Western superiority in regards to women in the workplace, something seen far too often in stories about women in the Muslim world, and cultural attitudes aren’t confused with Islamic norms, something also seen in many stories about Muslim women.

Ayat Ahmad and her husband, Emad Qanaq. Image via Hassan Amar, AP.
Ayat Ahmad and her husband, Emad Qanaq. Image via Hassan Amar, AP.

The author, Caryle Murphy, does a great job of covering various angles of the story. She looks at Saudi women who work, as well as their families. Some of the women, such as Ayat Ahmed, a hearing and speech pathologist, and Maram Al Fouzan, a doctor, are middle- and upper class; others, such as Wafa al Khudairi, who works in an assembly line, are working class. It’s great that Murphy focused on women from various classes in Saudi society, since the need and desire to work would affect women from all socio-economic classes.

Murphy looks at the women’s reasons for wanting to work, as well as the socioeconomic reasons that are driving more Saudi women into the workplace. From the interviewees’ answers, we get a sense that the women want to work for a variety of reasons: independence, adding to family income, and the desire to pursue their own dreams. Both the women interviewed for the article, as well as the author herself, point to changing societal attitudes as being part of the reason why more Saudi women are in the workforce.

But it is also true that acceptance of women in the workforce – something the government is encouraging – is gaining ground among the kingdom’s younger generation.

“Before, people didn’t like their wives working outside the home,” said Hassan al Humaidi, 32, an engineer whose wife, Maram Al Fouzan, 28, is pursuing her residency in family medicine at National Guard Hospital.

“Nowadays, me and my friends see that it’s no problem, and maybe this is better.
“You have a wife, she has principles, and she’s got a certificate, which she uses in a good way to work for example, in banks, hospitals, schools. So I feel proud that my wife works.”

They all discuss the growing acceptance of women’s education, as well as women having careers. This acceptance is discussed without having to compare Saudi Arabia to other societies, which I thought was great and refreshing. Murphy adequately focuses on changing societal norms without having to compare Saudi Arabia to Western nations and without having to credit other societies for the change.

While Murphy looked at changing attitudes and changing economic situations, she also wrote about the challenges that working Saudi women still face, as well as the fact that not all Saudis support women being in the workplace. She quotes a sobering statistic:

It is especially revolutionary for Saudi Arabia because of its unique place among nations, ranked lowest out of 128 – in terms of female “labour force participation” – by the 2007 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. Saudi officials say women make up only four per cent of the country’s workforce.

The women interviewed also discuss the opposition they receive from some Saudis, such as being given pamphlets by male colleagues that state that Islam favors stay-at-home moms, or being looked down upon for having to collaborate with male colleagues. Murphy discusses the opposition that working Saudi women face without demonizing Saudi culture or Saudi men. Reading the article, I got the sense that the women interviewed were happy working but also aware of the challenges they faced. I felt that they were proud of the work they’re doing, and had a sense that the work they do is serving a bigger societal purpose:

“There will be more women and I think they’ll be stronger because the new generation working right now, they’re very strong, they don’t care about what other people think,” she replied. “They just want to prove themselves.”

She added that the attitude of such women was: “I’m working, I’m not doing anything wrong … I’m doing something that’s natural, something that’s normal. I don’t care if you judge me. But I know what I’m doing. I’m well-raised.”-Razan al Bakr

The National’s article was a well-balanced article that served to highlight the gains and challenges of working Saudi women, without resorting to Orientalist stereotypes about Saudi women or Saudi society. It was great to read an article about Muslim women that did not make assumptions about Islam, Muslim women and oppression nor was overly apologetic in nature. We need more articles like that.

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