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Saudi women's rights

Wulf Wilde / srsAugust 17, 2012

Saudi Arabia is planning to estabilsh a work-zone to be staffed exclusively by women. With women facing many barriers to joining the country's workforce, experts wonder if the zones will only reinforce segregation.

Saudi jewelry merchant Samia Al-Edrisi, second from left, and children's clothing retailer Laila Alarifi, center background, talk to their colleagues at the Chamber of Commerce building, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2006 in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
Image: AP

Women make up more than 60 percent of high school graduates in Saudi Arabia, but represent just 15 percent of the country's workforce. Many of them go abroad to earn an advanced degree, only to return home unable to find a job.

Now Saudi Arabia is planning its first women-only work zone, an industrial area in the eastern city of Hofuf expected to provide 5,000 jobs. Yet experts are skeptical whether the plan will really provide a solution to female unemployment and underemployment in the kingdom.

High hurdles

"It would probably be much more efficient and effective to reduce hurdles for women by building up a normal labor market," Christoph Wilcke of Human Rights Watch told DW.

According to Wilcke, these structural barriers include Saudi Arabia's traditional system of guardianship, in which women need a male family member's written consent to take up a job. He added that the country's ban on female drivers and, not least, strict segregation of the sexes at work also limit women's employment opportunities.

Saudi women board a taxi in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, May 24, 2011. (ddp images/AP Photo/Hassan Ammar) // Eingestellt von wa
Women have been arrested for trying to drive in Saudi ArabiaImage: AP

Saudi Arabiaexpert Ulrike Freitag, Director of the Modern Orient Center, told DW she is also skeptic about the proposal for a women-only work zone.

"I think this is an attempt to implement the current segregation - which exists in banks, universities and school - on a wider basis," she said, "and suppress efforts toward a truly mixed public sphere."

Still, Freitag added, female work zones could possibly open up new chances to women that might not arise in a mixed public sphere.

Conservative attitudes

Middle East expert Stephanie Doetzer described her experiences as a journalist working for Al Jazeera in Saudi Arabia's neighbor Qatar.

"Women are often the ones to call for separation of the sexes," she said. "It is women who say, 'I am not comfortable with men at work; I can only think of work in a place where women are among each other'."

Doetzer added that women with such conservative attitudes are still in the majority. She said for many women in the Gulf states, a work zone reserved for women is completely reasonable.

Daily life scene in a mall in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on January 13, 2008. (Photo: Ammar Abd Rabbo +++(c) dpa - Report)
Women at a mall in Saudi ArabiaImage: picture alliance/dpa

Doetzer continued that while more and more women in Qatar are working in a mixed-gender environment, it remains a big issue.

"Not all women are satisfied with" the situation, she said. "The more women work in Qatar, the more there are who decide to wear a facial veil. That is a sort of portable gender separation, which finds its expression in clothes."

Change on the way?

"The majority of women are definitely still conservative," Freitag said. "But other voices with a big influence on society and especially the economy are growing."

One is Olfat Kabbani, deputy chairman of commerce and industry in the western Saudi city of Jeddah. The Internet blog Saudiwoman's weblog quoted her as criticizing the plan for a women-only work zone in the Okaz newspaper.

Kabbani said it is much more necessary to create educational opportunities, remove legal barriers and encourage investors to create jobs for women.

Freitag said other women working to carve out a place in public life. She said that's "not least because Saudi youths are very closely following what is happening in the Arab Spring around them."