Life & Culture

Progress for Saudi Women Is Uneven, Despite Cultural Changes and More Jobs

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – In the cramped shop where Kholoud Ahmed sells traditional gowns for Muslim women known as abayas, a rainbow of colors was a revelation.

In the past, women in Riyadh usually wore the same black abaya no matter where they went. Now, Ms. Ahmed, 21, has noticed that there is a different color or styled abaya for every occasion: weddings, meeting friends at a café, visiting parents.

“The colorful abayas were a strange thing for us in Riyadh, something unusual,” said Ms. Ahmed, the store’s clerk. “Within a year it has changed dramatically. It has become a normal thing nowadays.”

Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman became the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia more than four years ago, he has promised new opportunities for Saudi women as part of a broad modernization plan called Vision 2030.

The plan, which is being announced across Riyadh on posters and flags, aims to wean the kingdom away from its historical dependence on oil and shift it toward new industries, including technology, pharmaceuticals and tourism.

But to create more jobs for Saudis and attract international investors and companies to the desert monarchy, Prince Mohammed is also moving away from the conservative culture that kept many women close to home for years and intimidated many foreigners.

Over the past five years, the proportion of women working outside the home has almost doubled, according to official statistics, to 32 percent from about 18 percent. Today, women work as customs officials at Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport, customer relations managers in banks and hostesses in restaurants.

In addition to changes in the workplace, public places are becoming less strict with gender segregation. In cafes in Riyadh like Overdose (the slogan: “Caffeine, it’s my favorite drug”), male and female customers can now sip latte in mixed company.

Women can attend certain sporting events in stadiums, which was forbidden until a few years ago. They are no longer required to use separate entrances from men’s entrances although some institutions still use them. They can now also apply for passports, live on their own, and travel on their own.

But progress has been uneven.

The guardianship system, which is still in place despite some recent reforms, means that women must rely on permission from men—often from their fathers or husbands, but in some cases their children—to enter into marriage and make major decisions.

A prominent women’s rights activist has been jailed for three years after she publicly lobbied for some of the changes Prince Mohammed wanted – including allowing women to drive. She has since been released and has published a research paper on the status of Saudi women.

These fits and starts also manifest in everyday ways. Women’s clothing in Riyadh is still a far cry from liberal, although it was more subdued than it was a few years ago. Even women who avoid abayas wear clothes with long sleeves, high collars, and low hem.

They may be using money from their newly earned salaries to shop for slip-on shoes and slip-on dresses at Zara, but these are still only worn in private places.

“It’s not like before, like wearing a hijab and everything,” said Marwa, a 19-year-old college student who was shopping at Ms. Ahmed’s store, referring to the traditional head covering worn by Saudi women. “Now you have freedom of choice, but limited. It’s not like you’re showing parts of your body.”

Whatever things change, the culture remains conservative enough — and wary of angering the authorities — that Marwa, like many of the Riyadh residents interviewed for this article, declined to give her full name.

Marwa said other cultural changes, such as allowing shopkeepers to stay open during prayer time to accommodate both merchants and shoppers, created their own problems.

She said that some religious people who pray no matter what happens can be affected by the usual work situation. She said, “It’s as if you don’t respect the time of prayer.” Her friend Alaa, who was wearing track pants and sneakers under her abaya and had a tattoo on her wrist that read “Trust no one” – nodded.

During the call to prayer a few minutes later, a number of male shop workers closed their doors and headed to the prayer hall in the mall upstairs. On the ground floor, about 10 women, of the shepherds in black robes and veils, took a rug from a corner pile and knelt upon it in prayer. Others sat quietly on the benches, watching their children drive around in the battery-powered toy cars.

Abu Abdullah, a 52-year-old father of six, said he has seen the benefits of more flexible prayer times and new opportunities for women. He said: “While traveling, we do not pray.” “Even women do not pray for seven days,” referring to the prohibition of women from praying during menstruation.

Several of Abu Abdullah’s five daughters were standing nearby, eating corn with butter and french fries. One of them, Nut Al-Qahtani, 13, said she was pleased with the changes in women in Saudi Arabia. She said, “I want to work.” “I really want to be a doctor.”

Her father noted that not every dream job would be suitable.

“Some jobs are not suitable for some women,” he said, citing roles in plumbing and construction as examples. “It’s better to put it in the right place,” he added.

Five miles north of the mall, the local Al Shabab football club was playing for an out-of-town team at Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium. It was a balmy evening, and the crowds were lively as the home team scored. On the men’s side of the field, hundreds of men stood on their feet cheering and applauding the players.

Najeba, a nurse in the King Fahd Medical City hospital complex, was watching with two colleagues across the stadium on what is known as the family side, where women and children were instructed to sit. Although the woman has been able to attend sporting events in Saudi Arabia since 2018, it was only her second time in a match.

Najeba, 34, and her friends said they have seen much more Saudi women working in the hospital in recent years, and that the idea of ​​women in medical professions has become more acceptable to families who may have previously thought of a mixed-sex work environment. problem.

“A family now accepts if they have a daughter or wife who works in healthcare,” said Najeba, who was a neonatal intensive care unit nurse for years before taking on a management role.

Below the nurses, a few children were playing in the front row. A little girl, who was running and screaming, was reprimanded by a security guard.

Many spectators said that they never missed a match. One, a 29-year-old Saudi British Bank manager who was attending with her brother, praised Riyadh’s new entertainment options and increased economic opportunities for women. “We are very excited,” she said.

Shortly after 9:30 PM, the match ended with Al Shabab winning 3-0.

As the crowd dispersed, one of his stars, midfielder Hattan Habré, was signing autographs for dozens of fans across the fence separating the stands from the stadium.

Once, he placed his hands in the shape of a heart in front of him. A group of men surrounded the player, some with children draped over their shoulders. But one woman, wearing her rose-tinted sunglasses over her veil, walked to the front of the crowd, raised her phone and took the picture.

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