Meeting Report: Employment and Empowerment in Saudi Arabia

Thanks to Mona Almunaiey for her fascinating talk today on women’s empowerment. She examined how gender norms are institutionalised in the labour market in Saudia Arabia. She outlined that Saudi law is based on a patriarchal interpretation of Islam. As an example, Mona spoke of the concept of qiwama which refers to a man’s responsibility to look after a woman. Mona explained that this has been interpreted into a law that women need a male guardian’s approval for purposes such marriage, applying for jobs, and even access to healthcare. For example, a woman’s legal guardian can provide authorisation online either each time she applies for a job or sign that she is authorised for life.

After discussing the gender norms in Saudi Arabia, Mona spoke about life there since King Abdullah came to power in 2005. He was known as a reformist who encouraged the education and employment of women. Under his reign the number of female graduates increased dramatically. He provided incentives for hiring women since many graduated with degrees in 2008 and were looking for work. Foreign workers are often cheaper to higher. One of the reasons for hiring women was economic since foreign workers in Saudi often send money out of the country. Women can now work in most sectors: education, medicine, in beauty salons and as cashiers. However, the work place is highly segregated. Offices have separate entrances for male and female staff, restaurants have male-only and family sections, and banks have separate male and female spaces.

Mona argued that even though women now have more opportunities to work, they are still very much restricted by gender norms. Day care is very expensive and spaces are very limited. Women are still expected to comply by dress codes such as wearing no make-up. It also can be difficult for women to travel to work because there is no public transport, they are prohibited from driving, and it is culturally unacceptable for women to take a taxi. There are also no laws about sexual harassment.

Thanks again to Mona for her wonderful paper and to everyone who attended. We will see you again in two weeks!

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