Progress of Saudi women is uneven, despite cultural changes and more jobs

RIYAD, Saudi Arabia – In the small shop where Kholoud Ahmed sells traditional Muslim women’s dresses called abayas, the rainbow of color...


RIYAD, Saudi Arabia – In the small shop where Kholoud Ahmed sells traditional Muslim women’s dresses called abayas, the rainbow of colors is a revelation.

In the past, women in Riyadh usually wore the same black abaya no matter where they went. Now, Ms. Ahmed, 21, observed, there is an abaya in a different color or style for every occasion: weddings, meeting friends in a cafe, visiting relatives.

“The colorful abayas were a strange thing for us in Riyadh, something unusual,” said Ms. Ahmed, the shop assistant. “In one year, that has changed considerably. It has become normal these days.

Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman became Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader over four years ago he promised new opportunities for Saudi women as part of a vast modernization plan called Vision 2030.

The plan, which is advertised across Riyadh on posters and flags, aims to wean the kingdom from its historic dependence on oil and move it into new industries, including technology, pharmaceuticals and tourism.

But to create more job opportunities for Saudis and attract international investors and businesses to the Desert Monarchy, Prince Mohammed is also shaking up the conservative culture that has kept many women close to home for years and has scares away many foreigners.

Over the past five years, the percentage of women working outside the home has almost doubled, according to official statistics, at 32 percent compared to almost 18 percent. Today, women are customs officers at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, responsible for customer relations in banks and hostesses in restaurants.

In addition to changes in the workplace, public space is increasingly segregated by gender. In Riyadh cafes like Overdose (motto: “Caffeine is my drug of choice”), male and female customers can now sip lattes in a mixed company.

Women can attend certain sporting events in the stadiums, which was prohibited a few years ago. They are no longer obliged to use separate entrances from men although some establishments still use them. They can also now apply for a passport, live alone and travel alone.

But progress has been uneven.

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

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

These jerks are also evident on a daily basis. Women’s dress in Riyadh, although more relaxed than a few years ago, is still far from liberal; even women who avoid abayas wear clothes with long sleeves, high necklines and low hemlines.

They might be using the money from their new paychecks to buy kitten heeled boots and slip-on dresses at Zara, but such outfits are still only worn in private places.

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

While a lot has changed, the culture remains conservative enough – and cautious not to anger authorities – that Marwa, like many Riyadh residents interviewed for this article, declined to give her full name.

Marwa said other cultural changes, such as allowing store owners to stay open during prayer time to welcome both traders and shoppers, created their own problems.

Some people who are devout and ready to pray no matter what, she said, might be offended by the status quo attitude. “It’s like you don’t keep the time of prayer,” she said. Her friend Alaa – who wore sweatpants and sneakers under her abaya and sported a tattoo on her wrist that read “Don’t trust anyone” – nodded.

During the call to prayer a few minutes later, a number of nearby male store workers locked their doors and proceeded to the mall’s prayer room on an upper floor. Downstairs, a dozen women, patrons who wore black abayas and hijabs, picked up rugs from a corner pile and knelt on them to pray. Other women sat quietly on benches, watching their children ride around in miniature battery-powered cars.

A 52-year-old father of six, who only gave one nickname, Abu Abdullah, said he saw the benefits of more flexible prayer times and new opportunities for women. “During the trips, we don’t pray,” he said. “Even women, they don’t pray for seven days,” referring to the fact that women are prohibited from praying when they have their period.

Several of Abu Abdullah’s five daughters were standing nearby, eating buttered corn and fries. One of them, Nout al-Qahtani, 13, said she was delighted with the changes for women in Saudi Arabia. “I want to work,” she said. “I really want to be a doctor. “

Her father noted that not all dream jobs 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, a local football club, Al Shabab, was playing against an out-of-town team at Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium. It was a mellow evening and the crowd was lively when the home team scored. On the stadium’s men’s side, hundreds of men jumped to their feet, singing and clapping for the players.

Across the stadium from the family side, where women and children were to sit, Najiba, a nurse at the King Fahd Medical City complex, watched with two colleagues. Although women have been able to attend sporting events in Arabia since 2018, it was only the second time that they have participated in a match.

Najiba, 34, and friends said they have seen many more Saudi women working at the hospital in recent years and the idea of ​​women in medical careers has become more palatable to families who previously might have considered a mixed working environment. problem.

“Now the family is accepting whether they have a daughter or a woman who works in health care,” said Najiba, who was a nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit for years before taking on an administrative role.

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

Several female spectators said they never miss a game. One, a 29-year-old director of Saudi British Bank and her brother, praised Riyadh’s new entertainment options and growing economic opportunities for women. “We are so excited,” she said.

Shortly after 9:30 p.m., the match ended in a 3-0 victory for Al Shabab.

As the crowd dispersed, one of its star players, midfielder Hattan Bahebri, signed autographs for dozens of fans through the fence that separated the stands from the pitch.

At one point, he held his hands in the shape of a heart in front of him. A handful of men surrounded the player, some with children hoisted on their shoulders. But a woman, her rose-tinted sunglasses over her hijab, walked to the front of the crowd, lifted her phone and took the photo.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Progress of Saudi women is uneven, despite cultural changes and more jobs
Progress of Saudi women is uneven, despite cultural changes and more jobs
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