Skip to main content

Two Saudi women made Olympic history at the London Games, becoming the first female athletes from that country to participate. Back in Saudi Arabia, though, the sports ministry effectively bans girls and women from practicing sports. The government refused to approve a privately organized women’s Ramadan sporting competition, although organizers said that women participants would be modestly dressed, have their male guardians’ approval, and not mix with men – conditions the Saudi National Olympic Committee imposed for female participation in the Olympics.

Meanwhile, another battle over women’s rights has attracted little outside attention: The push to get women into the workforce, which religious conservatives are fiercely resisting. With four new Labor Ministry decrees in July, the number of jobs open to women has slowly increased, at least in theory. However, these decrees also gave conservatives a victory by reaffirming that strict sex segregation, loosened in 2005, applies to the workplace.

Saudi Arabia’s version of gender equality in Islam boils down to “different, but equal.” Women and men are considered equal in the sum of their rights and duties, but according to a 2003 treatise by the Saudi religious scholar Dr. Rabee al-Madkhali, God endowed men and women with different rights and duties, men’s “appropriate to their manhood and their strengths and their minds and their willingness to face the dangers,” and women’s according to “what befits their femininity and vulnerability and lacking compared to men in mind, strength and vulnerability in the willingness to face the dangers and hardships.” Whereas men have a duty to provide for women, women in turn must obey their male guardians and care for house and children.

A working woman with her own income challenges that understanding of gender relations.

In the late 1990s, the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, the highest religious authority in the country, said that a woman’s place was at home, and that she should only leave the house in case of necessity.

Some things have changed since then. Women are allowed to own and operate businesses; they have even managed to do away with the male legal proxy that government offices required for female-owned businesses to handle all official interactions. Women have both been elected and appointed to the Jeddah and Dammam chambers of commerce. Since 2008, women no longer need a male guardian to stay alone in hotels.

Since assuming the throne in 2005, King Abdullah has pushed successive labor ministers to get women into the workforce, with some limited success. More than 60 percent of the kingdom’s university students are women, and since 2006, some universities have allowed women to study law. However, a plan proposed in 2009 to allow women to practice law has still not been put into effect.

Saudi women’s participation in the labor force has tripled, to close to 15 percent, over the past two decades, but is still among the lowest in the region. While most Saudi women with jobs work as teachers and in the health profession, the battle over increasing the female workforce actually began with lingerie. Conservatives opposed the king’s plan to replace foreign male sales clerks in lingerie stores with Saudi women. But in July 2011, Labor Minister Adel al-Faqih issued a decree requiring that lingerie stores be staffed only by Saudi women.

Under the decree, the shops could serve only women or families. If the shop is for women only, its windows must be covered; if serving families, they must be open.

This decree, and another issued at the same time that regulates women’s work in factories, contained an innocuous-sounding but revolutionary phrase: “Employing women in these shops does not require the permission of the Labor Ministry or any other party.” Labor officials told the media in May that this meant that women no longer required their male guardians’ approval to work.

Under the Saudi system of male guardianship, the guardians – a woman’s husband, father, brother, or even minor son – have power over their female relatives of all ages, approving or declining their travel, work, marriages, official business, or health care, almost at will.

The conservatives’ line of attack against these liberalizing measures was not about preserving guardianship power, however, but about preventing gender mixing. Muhammad al-‘Arifi, a prominent conservative cleric, warned that women shouldn’t work in places where they could mix with men, sometimes considered a crime in Saudi Arabia, where strict sex segregation still applies in most places.

Some supermarkets, like the Panda chain, had begun to employ female cashiers but were then forced to let them go under pressure from conservative clerics. Now a government agency has joined the opposition to women working. The July 2011 decrees give the Labor Ministry jurisdiction over all matters involving women’s employment. However, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the government morality watchdog with police powers, in June 2012 summoned a Mecca-based supermarket manager to upbraid him for employing female cashiers. The manager immediately fired the women, who had worked for less than a month.

In May, Saudi Arabia’s administrative court, the Board of Grievances, struck down the decree requiring lingerie stores to have women as clerks, on the basis that serving of both men and women customers violated Islamic legal strictures on sex segregation.

In response, the Labor Ministry on July 18 issued four new decrees, in part to “correct some mistakes” in the application of the initial decrees that were seen as potentially leading to gender mixing. These new decrees, which apply to women’s work in clothing stores, amusement parks, food preparation, and as cashiers more explicitly spell out the business’s obligation to prevent the “mixing” of the sexes and the “prohibition of seclusion between the sexes,” referring to men and women being alone in a closed room. The decrees stipulate that women must have their own work area and rest rooms and may not interact with men, unless the men are part of their larger family group. If the enterprise also employs men, a minimum of three women must be hired.

A change in the labor law in 2005 removed strict gender segregation provisions, requiring only the more vague “compl[iance] with the dictates of Islamic law,” which leaves some room for interpretations about the exact nature of a woman’s work environment. The 2012 decrees are a step back in that they spell out and reinforce strict gender segregation in the workplace. However, this victory for conservatives has been offset by an increase in jobs now open to women.

These are baby steps, but important ones. Women’s unemployment is almost four times as high as men’s, according to government statistics. Close to 80 percent of unemployed women are university graduates, a 2010 study by Booz and Company, a global consultancy, found. The Saudi leadership is testing the waters, but the list of prohibited professions for women, from mining to construction, work in tanneries or electricity production or car repair shops, remains long.

But even with the government, religious and social hurdles, women are increasingly braving opprobrium to seek meaningful work, which is destined to challenge and perhaps ultimately undermine Saudi Arabia’s “different, but equal” façade.

Christoph Wilcke is Senior Researcher, Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.