03/08/2013, 00.00
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Saudi Arabia, the slow emancipation of women in male-dominated Islamic society

Under the Islamic monarchy only nobles, wives and daughters of big businessmen can work. But at least 1.7 million women in the country are unemployed and segregated at home. The battle of Reem Asaad, a successful manager, to give dignity to women in the workplace has always been stigmatized by a society governed by Islamic Sharia.

Riyadh (AsiaNews / Agencies) - Among the 100 most influential women in the Arab world, 15 are Saudis. The list is drawn up by the CEO Middle East magazine specialized in the analysis on the Middle Eastern region. Most of them are successful managers belonging to the local nobility, or the wives of big businessmen. Lubna Olayan, who heads the Olayan Financing Company, occupies the second place in the rating, dominated by Sheikha Lubna Al-Qasim, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the United Arab Emirates. In third place is another Saudi, Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel. However, their status is very different from that of the thousands of women who live in the kingdom, suffering from an unemployment rate of over 30% the result of Islamic laws that segregate women to the private home and prevent them from working.

In Saudi Arabia, women are prohibited from various professions. The few who have jobs, including those operating in high finance, must always be under the control of a male "guardian". Because of these restrictions, about 1.7 million women are without a job, even if more than 50% have a university education. The Gulf kingdom is the only country in the world that forbids women to drive a car, vote in elections and demands they have the permission of a man to hold down any job, travel or open a bank account.

Reem Asaad, is a successful manager employed at Saudi Fransi Capital Bank, where she is chief consultant in sales and investment. She became famous for having started a legal battle against the kingdom in 2008 to allow women to work in lingerie shops, replacing or alongside their male colleagues.

"It all started in 2008 - says Assad - I was in a shop in the capital and I was rummaging among the products, but I could not find a bra and panties in my size. So I tried to open one of the boxes on display, but I was immediately stopped by the male assistant, who admonished me saying he did not want to have problems with the muttawa, the religious police. " In the clothes and linen shops, there are no dressing rooms, so you are forced to buy things without trying them on. "But I am a demanding customer - she says.  So I went to the checkout I opened the box and asked the clerk to try the bra on his shoulders, causing a real scandal." Back at home Asaad published the story on her Facebook page, launching an appeal to the government to replace male shop assistants with female staff. In a short time the news spread around the world and was published by the BBC. The embarrassment of the government was such that in 2011 the monarchy proposed a law to place orders in stores. The decree took two years to be approved by the civil and religious authorities, becoming official only last January.

"A bill already existed in 2005 - says the woman - but had never been tested, fearing the backlash of conservative fringes of society." All openings made in recent years by the monarchy, including the one that allows female deputies to attend meetings of the Shura, are subject to the scrutiny of the religious authorities and society as a whole, dominated by men. "The government can do little - she explains - an example is the driving license for women. Reform will only come if the whole of society is willing to accept it. The same goes for women in the workplace. It is society not the government who in fact makes the final decision. Though there are laws often they are never applied". The law on female staff  in lingerie shops has undergone several changes and finally passed, but with the obligation for all businesses to build a wall up to 1.80 meters high for to divide men employees from women. Nevertheless, Assad stresses that is a turning point for the status of women in the country: "In just a few days, more than 28 thousand women applied to work in the shops in the main cities of the country. This shows a slow but significant change in society. Young Saudi women in 21st century are different from those of other generations. they are willing and want to work in the past women who worked to help rear their family were frowned upon not only by men but by other women too. "

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