06/23/2015 11:58 AM
Lifting the Veil
How Working Women Are Remaking Saudi Arabia
Photos: Photo Gallery: Female Emancipation in Saudi Arabia - SPIEGEL ONLINE - International
By Juliane von Mittelstaedt and Samiha Shafy
A growing number of women in Saudi Arabia are joining the workforce and chipping away at discriminations enshrined in its laws. But they face conservative opposition and -- even now -- a ban on driving.
This article is the second in a two-part series about the state and future of the most influential country in the Middle East. Check out part one.
Every time Hanin Alamri sells a pair of shoes, it amounts to a revolution. Stilettos, platform heels, gold peep-toes -- all lined up on white shelves on the second floor of the Red Sea Mall, one of the biggest shopping centers in Jeddah. 27-year-old Alamri wears trainers with her floor-length black and white abaya. Her hair, hidden underneath a headscarf, is dyed red. She recently got divorced. "Every day I say thanks, thanks, thanks that I am free," says Hanin Alamri. If it weren't for her job, she'd still be married.
Her marriage was arranged, and she only met her husband-to-be after they got engaged. He promised her he would be tolerant and open-minded, but once they were married, he forced her to wear a niqab, which left only her eyes uncovered. He was unemployed and unhappy. "He didn't want me to be happy either," she says. She was stuck at home, with no money of her own and nothing to do. She had a daughter, but became depressed. Her husband controlled her every move and forbade her from working. Alamri begged him to change his mind. After two years, he gave in.
Her first job was selling cosmetics. Then she began working in a shoe store. Four years ago, female shop assistants were few and far between. Most people working in stores were men from overseas -- from the Philippines, Bangladesh and Malaysia. Foreigners account for one third of the population in Saudi Arabia, working primarily as drivers, waiters, housekeepers or salespeople for clothes and cosmetics -- and even lingerie. In a country that insists on segregation of the sexes, women had to buy lingerie from men.
"Once I had to give a shop assistant my bra size," says Alamri. "He told me I had it wrong. I was deeply embarrassed." Trying anything on was out of the question. There are no changing rooms in stores in Saudi Arabia. So Alamri did what all women there have to do - she picked up a random bra, paid and left. And got used to badly-fitting underwear.
The Lingerie Revolution
But women decided they'd had enough. In 2012, Saudi Arabia began enforcing a law that allows only females to work in lingerie stores. Gradually, women were also granted the right to sell abayas, make-up, handbags and shoes. Children's toys. Clothes. Slowly but surely, men were banished from these realms.
Female participation in the workforce, however, brought with it a host of new problems. How could women get to work, when they're not allowed to drive? Who was going to look after their children? What happens if they're expecting? More laws have subsequently been passed, from a right to ten-weeks of paid parental leave, to a right to work part-time and a right to childcare support. A revolution started by lingerie. Only in Saudi Arabia.
Society has undergone dramatic change in the last ten years, ever since the late King Abdullah succeeded to the throne in 2005. The change has been especially dramatic since 2011. The main reason for the transformation is that a growing number of women are now working, and not just as civil servants, teachers and doctors. They're increasingly better-educated and financially independent and above all, they're a far more visible presence. They're leaving the isolation of their homes and are free to travel around inside the country, at least, to stay in hotels, and to set up companies. There are now even women's shelters in Saudi Arabia and discussions of violence against women are no longer the taboo they used to be. The way women are perceived has changed - as has the way they perceive themselves.
"I used to be afraid all the time, I avoided speaking to strangers," says Alamri. "But then I started to open up and meet people, and to enjoy life." Her husband, however, began to stop by the store where she worked. He spied on her and told her she wasn't allowed to speak to strange men. At home, he shouted at her. She began to ask herself why she needed him. She was earning money, after all. Not a lot, but enough to support herself. After two years, she filed for divorce.
Today Alamri is store manager. But she still has unfulfilled ambitions. She went to night school to gain a degree in sociology. She'll be writing her final exams in a few weeks' time. She's considering applying for a better-paid job. She'd like to send her daughter to a private school, and reels off a list of countries she'd like to visit: India, Malaysia, the US. She just returned from her first trip abroad --- to Dubai. She says she's never been so happy.
Saudi Arabia's raison d'état
These days, women can check travelers' passports at the airport, work as lawyers filing complaints in court, sit on executive boards and enter the diplomatic corps. Female entrepreneurs are running successful catering services, developing apps and designing abayas they then sell via Instagram. For the last two years, 30 of the 150 members of the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia, the Shura Council, have been women handpicked by the former King. At the end of the year, women will be able to vote for their local council for the first time and also to run as candidates.
Of course, there is another way of looking at this. The Shura Council is merely an impotent pseudo-parliament. Women still cannot be judges or ambassadors. Only 15 percent of women are employed. Saudi Arabia is home to more highly-qualified housewives than anywhere else in the world. They are still infantilized by law, legally controlled by male guardians. They have to wear abayas; arranged marriages remain the norm and the punishment for adultery can be the death sentence. Women in rural areas, meanwhile, can still only dream of the freedoms now enjoyed by women in cities.
Segregation of the sexes is still Saudi Arabia's raison d'état, keenly monitored by the national vice squad. Their mission is to prevent ikhtilat and khalwa. Ikhtilat is a term used to describe the free mixing between men and women, while khalwa is a more serious offense -- namely, when a woman is with a man alone, be it in a room or car. Young girls are raised to respect these dictates. Even friends will rarely have met one another's wives. Up to four wives are allowed.
These principles form the mainstay of this fundamentalist state. Nevertheless, much progress has been made, even if Saudi Arabia is still decades behind much of the rest of the world. The change is only apparent if you look very closely, past the black veils that so often deflect the world's gazes from this country.
Seeing Past the Veils
You have to look past many veils to see Ebtisam Almutlaqd, who wears an abaya, niqab and headscarf. All black. Only her hands are visible, white and delicate, and her dark eyes. 30-year-old Almutlaqd makes sculptures out of wire. One, of a figure that looks like it's straining forward, is called "Be free."
"Let's turn our difficulties into challenges and our obstacles into motivation," it says on her website. So is her art a plea for the liberation of the confined oppressed women of Saudi Arabia?
Almutlaqd smiles. It's a smile that can actually be seen now, because she's in the Ladies Kingdom, a women-only floor of the Kingdom Center shopping mall in Riyadh, and has thus taken off her veil and headscarf. "The West is always trying to liberate us, but we don't feel as though we aren't free, we feel appreciated in our society, thank God," says Almutlaqd. She hopes her art expresses the idea that Saudi Arabian women can achieve anything they want.
Anything? What about the segregation of the sexes? The fact that women require male guardians? She shrugs off all these objections. "I am proud to be a Saudi-Arabian woman," says Almutlaqd, who doesn't see any contradiction between tradition and contemporary art. She studied art in Riyadh, learning that art is predicated on independent thinking -- in a country that rejects anything that distracts from religion. The first galleries only recently opened in Riyadh. But Almutlaqd, a devout Muslim, now sells her work to wealthy Saudi princes.
Other female artists, like 24-year-old Reema AlJawiny, don't wear black abayas. She's dressed in a woolen coat and sweatpants. She wears her hair short and has a pierced eyebrow. She draws pictures of half-naked women and posts them on Instagram. When she's not drawing or training for her next marathon, she also teaches gym classes. She's taken part in marathons in Belgium and Dubai. But if she wants to run in Riyadh, she has to go to the secluded diplomatic quarter, where the embassies are and only foreigners live. To her, running in public in a country that bans girls in state schools from taking part in gym class, is a form of protest.
Two women who both live in Riyadh, who could not be more different. But in their own separate ways, both are trying to overcome the barriers their country has placed before them. Both are young women who belong to a younger generation yearning for more space for themselves, but what they actually mean is more freedom.
The Liberating Impact of Social Media
It's a tall order. In Saudi Arabia, emancipation is not personal but political. Women are caught in the crossfire of a battle between conservatives and modernizers that is raging across the Islamic world, and especially in Saudi Arabia. What is unfolding there is nothing less than a social experiment: what happens when an archconservative country undergoes an accelerated process of modernization?
Statistically speaking, two key trends can be observed: Firstly, three out of four Saudi Arabians are under thirty. Secondly, nowhere in the world do these young people spend more time on YouTube than in Saudi Arabia; nowhere in the world does Twitter have more active users in proportion to the population; nowhere else in the world is a Smartphone as liberating and catalytic as it is here.
Young people, after all, have little else to do. Cinema is banned. The shows broadcast on local television are either religious or stultifingly boring. In contrast, YouTube is a legal gray area, out of reach of the censors and therefore a font of entertainment in a desert of distractions. This is largely, but not only, the doing of Kaswara al-Khatib, who in 2010 co-founded the YouTube channel UTurn. It's been providing millions of Saudi Arabians with comedy, news and entertainment shows ever since.
46-year-old Khatib works in an office close to the airport in Jeddah. He wears a traditional long, white thawb and horn-rimmed glasses, the international uniform of the creative classes. There's no smoking or drinking in the videos shown on UTurn, no drugs, no bare skin. But there are female presenters and lots of music. UTurn is constantly pushing the envelope, bringing content that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago into the mainstream.
What did young Saudi Arabians do before the Internet age? "Good god," says Khatib and laughs. "Things were terrible when I was young."
He and his friends would race cars and throw scrunched-up pieces of paper with their telephone numbers on them at girls -- despite the fact they could only see their eyes. "Then we'd dash home and wait by the phone." When one of these girls actually called and they arranged to meet in a supermarket. When the girls showed up, albeit with a chaperone, the boys were thrilled. "But actually talking to one another was out of the question." He raises his eyebrows. "I think society has grown up since then."
Contradictions and Crumbling Walls
Many couples meet at work. They talk on the phone, send each other pictures via Facebook and Snapchat. They're no longer willing to submit to arranged marriages. A growing number of women don't want to marry a man who's also their guardian at all. According to official figures, 45 percent of women over 30 are single and 40 percent of marriages end in divorce.
Marriage is one of the foundations of Saudi society, and one that will erode if women no longer comply with the rules. The walls between the sexes, defended by the devout for decades, are slowly being torn down. The more women work, the more obvious the contradictions and the harder it becomes to maintain segregation.
Why are there separate entrances for men and women in offices, for example, when they can be seated next to one another in planes? Why are women allowed to be driven by a foreigner but not by their own cousin? Why can sales clerks talk to customers but aren't allowed to meet their future husbands before they've got engaged? First and foremost, why does the state spend so much money educating women when there are no jobs for them?
A conference center at the Hilton in Jeddah, on the western coast, in late April. Golden frescoes grace the walls; heavy chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Beneath them are crowds of women, thronging past stands from Ikea, Ernst & Young and a Saudi branch of the bank HSBC. Some of them are wearing fancy silk abayas, others are clad more conservatively in black, but they all have their resumés in their purses and they're all here to find a job.
All of that is totally normal. A job exchange that is just for women, however, isn't self-evident in Saudi Arabia -- despite the fact that many women don't know how they're supposed to find a job, and many employers, most of them men, don't know how they're supposed to find women. Or that women like Eman Alzahrani -- an unmarried 32-year-old who just returned from Montreal with a masters in computer science in her pocket - exist at all. She is a small, resolute woman who wears her abaya so that her checkered blouse and patent-leather shoes are visible beneath it. She is in the process of discovering that her country is not yet like her -- that although it has paid for her expensive education, it still has no use for her computer knowledge.
An Upside-Down World
Over 150,000 Saudi Arabians are currently studying abroad, half of them at American universities. After Chinese, Indians and South Koreans, they are the largest foreign contingent. One third of the Saudi students abroad are women, and now they are returning to their homeland. But unlike earlier generations, they aren't satisfied with teaching in schools or running philanthropic projects. They want to develop computer programs, lead companies or build houses.
Alzahrani walks up to the company booths, fills out application questionnaires on iPads and passes along her resume. But she hears the same thing everywhere: female IT experts aren't needed, but could she imagine working in accounting?
It is a seemingly upside-down world: Women looking for jobs as shop clerks are overwhelmed with job offers. But it's extremely difficult for well-educated women -- one third of all female university graduates are unemployed, and 60 percent of all the graduates are women.
After one hour, Alzahrani gives up and drops into an armchair. "The government supports that we women are working," she says angrily. "But our society is still very conservative."
She could take the easy way out and go to America -- she has a US passport. But she wants to create change in her country, she doesn't want to take the simple path. She has never taken that path: She has four brothers, her father is an officer and her mother is a homemaker. She applied for the international scholarship in secret, and didn't tell her parents until she had gotten her spot.
Before going to Canada, she worked in the administration of a military hospital. She enjoyed it -- being the only woman among men, she suddenly had freedoms she hadn't imagined. The army job is now her plan B. She could imagine going back there for work. In any case, she is determined: first a job, then marriage. She doesn't want to deviate from her plan, because she is afraid that she will end up a homemaker, like so many women before her.
A Desire for Change
Khalid Alkhudair organized this job fair for women like Eman Alzahrani -- women who are highly qualified, modern and full of energy. You can still see his pride and amazement when he sees all the young female graduates. This isn't the first job fair he has organized, but demand is undiminished.
Alkhudair is a small 31-year-old, dressed in a thawb and a red-white checkered ghutrah, the traditional headcovering. But his outward appearance is deceptive. Alkhudair studied in the United States; he is married to a woman who, of course, works. His office is decorated like a start-up, with white leather sofas and mottos on the walls.
When he finished his university education, he spent some time being unemployed before getting a job at KPMG. "And many women, who were much smarter than me, had a much harder time," he says. He thought that women should be helped, an idea that took years to come to fruition. Driven by business acumen and the desire for change, Alkhudair founded the women's recruitment company Glowork in 2011. Only about 70,000 Saudi Arabian women worked at that point -- 95 percent them as civil servants.
Alkhudair went to Microsoft and Cisco in Riyadh, where people were excited about his idea. Only the Saudi Arabian company-heads were resistant, because they claimed women weren't qualified. They had never employed women before. Above all else they claimed that women are too expensive, because when you hire a woman, you need to create a separate office. Separate toilets. Separate break rooms. Separate entrances.
It might have remained that way, had there not been a historical accident: the Arab Spring in early 2011. After the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain, the government became afraid of its own young people. And in order to appease them, they spent money: $550 per month for every unemployed person. By December 2012, 2.2 million Saudi Arabians had claimed the benefit, 1.6 million of whom were female. Suddenly they had a face. And a price tag: the support cost a total of $10 billion per year.
What would happen if the government didn't merely pay off the unemployed, but invested in them through training, through placement, by helping women find jobs? That's what Alkhudair thought, and he suggested exactly that. Former Employment Minister Adel Fakeih agreed. Now Glowork has 63 employees. They've found jobs for over 10,000 women, as workers in a lightbulb factory, and as baristas in cafes, but also as human resources officers and accountants. The number of women with jobs has increased approximately eightfold since 2011.