Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

November 14, 2015

Saudi Women Seek More Employment Opportunities

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Private businesses are discovering that female applicants are less likely to accept jobs that re­quire long hours and low wages.

By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

13 November 2015

Jeddah – Bassma al-Harbi had what she thought was a dream job. A rising star in a ma­jor Saudi Arabian private company that owns and operates a string of high-profile restaurants and department stores, she was groomed for quick ad­vancement.

Harbi, 25, and a university gradu­ate, rapidly moved up and became a regional supervisor but her dream soured almost as quickly. Her work­load doubled to two shifts daily, six days a week. Although she worked as a regional supervisor for a year and had significant responsibilities, a salary increase never material­ised.

It became clear, the Medina wom­an said, that she was one of many women who were being exploited in the private sector.

“By hiring women the company is making tonnes of money because more and more conservative wom­en trust us (female sales representa­tives),” Harbi said. “These custom­ers stay longer in the shop because they are dealing with knowledge­able saleswomen and not leaving quickly because they must talk to men. Revenue is up because they are hiring more girls.”

Harbi said she quit after three years of exhausting work and no prospect of a salary that reflected her management skills and educa­tion. She remains unemployed.

Her experience serves as a warn­ing that business practices in the private sector have not caught up with the explosive growth in the number of women working in Saudi Arabia.

Long accustomed to hiring com­pliant expatriates, mostly who work in retail and restaurants at modest salaries, the private sector is under pressure from the Saudi Ministry of Labour to hire Saudi women to maintain quotas of Saudi employees under the government’s Nationalisation Programme.

Now in the position where em­ploying women is a consideration to maintain nationalisation numbers or face fines, private businesses are discovering that female applicants are less likely to accept jobs that re­quire long hours and low wages.

Businesses have been slow to ad­just to the new dynamic of the fe­male employee.

“I see frustrations on many lev­els,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi women’s rights activist. “They need women to work but don’t know how to negotiate their salary.”

Harbi said Saudi employers are not considering the difficulty wom­en face in taking a job.

“A woman taking a job is a family decision and usually not everyone in the family agrees to the job,” she said. “The family’s priority is mar­riage. If you’re working two shifts and have time for nothing else, no one in the family will agree to you taking a job.”

In many instances, Saudi wom­en are desperate to find employ­ment because it means financial independence. Many work long hours for low pay and do not com­plain. According to the Saudi Press Agency, the Labour Ministry re­ported there was a 76.08% increase in female employment in private business in the previous year. The year before that, the increase was 23.92%.

During the previous year, an es­timated 174,827 Saudi women were working in private business in the Riyadh region while the Mecca re­gion had 114,173 women and East­ern Province employed 68,000.

The increase in female employ­ment is a step in the Labour Minis­try’s attempt to reduce the 34% un­employment rate cited by the Saudi Central Department of Statistics and Information.

The increase in privately em­ployed women is also due to the Labour Ministry’s aggressive cam­paign to reduce the number of male expat workers in lingerie and beauty shops. Virtually every mall in Saudi Arabia’s urban centres now employ all-female staffs.

Fassi cautioned that the Labour Ministry’s statistics may be mis­leading. She said the increase in the number of women entering the workforce is likely in the retail sec­tor with significantly fewer univer­sity-educated females finding work in professional fields.

“It’s a good number because it shows a need for low-income wom­en to find work. It’s filling this gap,” Fassi said. “But the high number in the Labour Ministry’s statistics are explained by women entering retail jobs and not reflective of women’s contributions to the economy. We still need a stronger level of protec­tion.”

One weakness in the govern­ment’s efforts to employ women in the private sector is the lack of enforcement and follow-through on a wide range of rights the La­bour Ministry granted to women. Rights granted include women are no longer required to obtain per­mission from their male guardians to work. The ministry also gives women maternity leave, mourning periods up to four months and ten days if a husband should die and paid leave for marriage.

“The Labour Ministry should be stronger in implementing its rules that protect women and preserve their dignity,” Fassi said. “The re­ligious police still breach some of these laws by harassing these wom­en by coming into shops and just standing there because they don’t like the way they dress.”

She said regulations against mix­ing between men and women and fines for women who violate the Islamic dress code target female workers and not men. “It’s accusa­tive of women, a bit hostile,” Fassi said.

“The reforms like [mourning] are a very good step towards more rights,” Fassi noted. “But it’s not very clear companies will follow the rights imposed by the Labour Ministry.”

A Labour Ministry spokesman was unavailable for comment.

Rob L. Wagner is an American journalist based in Saudi Arabia.

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January 16, 2012

Saudi Women Target Guardianship Laws to Ease Employment Restrictions

By Rob L. Wagner

Eurasia Review

16 January 2012

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – When Shroog Talal Radain sought employment as a teacher’s assistant at King Abdulaziz University, her husband signed the necessary guardianship forms granting her permission to take the job.

It’s the law of the land. A woman must carry around a permission slip from a man to function in Saudi society.

“To me getting permission wasn’t a big deal because it felt like a piece of paper and that’s all,” Radain said in a recent interview. “But unfortunately to others it’s a big deal, especially to those who do not have a close guardianship like a father, brother, husband or son.”

As violent protests roil through the Middle East with ruling monarchies facing uncompromising demands from its citizens for a greater voice, women’s rights is emerging as Saudi Arabia’s own Arab Spring, albeit in a less demonstrative manner. Emboldened by the role women played in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, Saudi women are beginning to challenge the core of the kingdom’s interpretation of guardianship in Islam. A male family member supervising all aspects of a woman’s life is a belief among Saudis who view guardianship as a sacred duty.

It is also perhaps the most abused tenet of Islam. The Qur’an is clear on the issue of employment of women: Islam permits women to work with some conditions. Women can work as long as the job does not interfere with being a wife and mother. The job should also not force women to mix with men. Women should also have special skills, such as in teaching or medicine. Islamic scholars generally agree that women seeking employment do not need a guardian’s permission. Nor does a government have the authority to demand that a woman receive such permission.

Last fall, a group of Saudi women launched a campaign to abolish the Ministry of Labor’s rule that women must have guardian approval to seek employment. Alia Banaja, a spokeswoman for the group, told the Saudi media recently that the Saudi constitution affirms women’s equality by stating in gender-neutral language that, “Equality, justice and consent are the basis for ruling.”

“For women to have the chance to work in the profession of her choice, obstacles must be eliminated out of her way,” Banaja told the English language newspaper Arab News.

By challenging the Ministry of Labor’s guardianship rules, the group is doing what was unthinkable just a few years ago.

“It has nothing to do with Islamic concepts simply because our society is tied up where they throw every issue on Islam,” Radain said. “Guardianship in Islam [refers to] a person who protects the woman, and seeks shelter, love and protection for her. It’s not a person who is in control of her and her life actions.”

Writer Tara Umm Omar, who blogs about Islamic and women’s issues in Saudi Arabia, told me that blanket guardianship rules are not practical given the varying dynamics of Saudi families. Guardians are often too busy to help with paperwork or they use the right as a weapon. “Some of these male family members abuse the guardianship law out of spite and use it to their advantage, inconveniencing their female relatives as a result,” she said.

According to a survey conducted by the global consulting company Booz & Co., nearly half of the Saudi population is female and 56.5 percent of the kingdom’s women hold university degrees. However, just 14 percent of the women are in the workforce, In contrast, women account for 25 percent of the population in Qatar with 89 percent holding university degrees. Qatari women make up 30 percent of the country’s workforce.

The study notes the Gulf region’s “mix of local norms and traditions, social beliefs and principles emanating from the GCC’s patriarchal system still, to some extent, exert an influence on young women’s lives.” The study also found that only 22 percent of Gulf women believe they must devote their lives as wives and mothers before taking on a job. It marks a dramatic shift of Arab women’s attitudes from how their parents view their roles in society.

Yet Saudi women walk a tightrope between demanding their rights within the context of Islam while at the same time being perceived as challenging those very precepts as defined by the government.

US-based Muslim women’s rights activist Raquel Evita Saraswati, a frequent lecturer on religious and human rights issues, said that petitioning religious authorities might be seen as aggressive by Saudi authorities.

“But it really isn’t all that aggressive or extreme in the context of Islam itself as a religion with a rich history of debate and dissent among the faithful,” Saraswati said in an interview. “However, Saudi Arabia has implemented a specific interpretation of Islam as state law, effectively banning any other interpretation of the Sharia (Islamic law).”

Mark Sedgwick, coordinator of the Arab and Islamic Studies Unit at Aarhus University in Denmark and a historian of modern Islam, said it makes sense that Saudi women want rights grounded in Islam. It does not make sense, he said, when it is incorrectly implemented.

“So many of the practical problems for women in Saudi Arabia derive from the way in which the concept of guardianship is interpreted there — ways in which it is not interpreted almost anywhere else in the Muslim world — that it makes a lot of sense to start with those interpretations,” Sedgwick said.

Saraswati said the guardian rules are simply a mechanism to control women.

“I do not argue that the Qur’an grants the sexes complete equality,” Saraswati said. “However, I find Saudi Arabia’s restrictions on women in the workplace to be a conscious, calculated interpretation on the part of religious authorities, rather than absolute mandates set down by the religion.”

Saraswati said the Labor Ministry’s guardianship rules are so egregious that it renders Saudi women to the status of a child. “Islamists have burned embassies and murdered film directors over insults to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, while Muslim women live under rules more insulting to Prophet Muhammad than any cartoon could ever be,” she noted.

If push comes to shove, few Saudis will argue the religious validity of the kingdom’s guardianship rules. Umm Omar, however, said Saudi woman must shoulder some of the responsibility for their predicament.

“There has to be a line drawn as to how much a government and employers can interfere in peoples’ lives,” she said. “That goes for those Saudi women who think they know that what is best for them is also best for others. Sometimes I think that these types of women are their own enemies.”

Still, working women and young university students seeking employment are aware that abolishing the Labor Ministry’s requirements will only poke a stick in a hornet’s nest.

“If the Ministry of Labor had to loosen up the guardianship issue, then other ministries will have to loosen up as well, which will start a whole new dilemma,” said university teaching assistant Radain. “But for them to abolish it completely, believe me it will never happen.”

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