Women in Saudi Arabia

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This week five Arab women were given awards in Dubai for their contributions to science in the region. The award was part of the L’Oreal-Unesco Program for Women in Science. Among the winners was Entissar Al Suhaibani from Saudi Arabia, a professor at the King Saud University in Riyadh, “for her academic excellence and the promise of her research into radiation genotoxicity.” The event stood in contrast to recent developments in Saudi Arabia, where the government and the kingdom’s top government-sanctioned board of senior Islamic scholars are at loggerheads over the increased participation of women in the workforce.

In response to a recent government initiative to allow women to work as cashiers in supermarkets and department stores, the Committee on Scholarly Work and Ifta, the official source of fatwas, or religious rulings, issued a fatwa “that [women] ‘should not work as cashiers in supermarkets,’ adding that ‘it is not permissible for women to work in a place where they mix with men.’”

The fatwa was received with anguish and outrage in some quarters. According to an AFP report on the event,
“Progressive women are all outraged,” said Fawzia al-Bakr, a professor at Riyadh’s King Saud University. “It is not just about a woman working as a cashier…. There are more than 60,000 women university graduates looking for jobs.”
Reem Asaad, a Jeddah economics professor, called the fatwa an attack on efforts like her campaign to create more jobs for women. “It’s an organized war to stop what we are trying to do,” she told AFP, adding that “we don’t know what will happen now.”
Objections also poured in from men and women on the internet.

Writing for Arab News, Khalaf Al-Arbi asks, “Why is it not considered gender mixing when a man sits at the cashier’s desk and sells cheese, beans and olives to women? Why is it not permissible when the opposite happens? Why is it considered gender mixing and against Islam when a woman sits at the cashier’s desk selling cheese, beans and olives to men? The answer you may receive is this: ‘We have told you that this is haram. No more argument.’ As Islam asks you to use your brain, you begin to search for fatwas, but you will not find a single Quranic text forbidding women from buying and selling.”

The outcome of the debate is important since the Saudi monarchy has realized for some time now that increased participation of women in the workforce will be one of the driving forces for the future growth of the kingdom. A recent Saudi Gazette article opined that “a large portion of Saudi Arabia’s wealth is in the hands of its women, who are believed to be sitting on pure cash totaling $11.9 billion. Yet, their true potential has been undermined for many years. Women constitute almost 45 percent of Saudi Arabia’s total population, and have a literacy rate of 79 percent. However, only about 65 percent of them are employed, and 78.3 percent of unemployed women are university graduates”

Faced with these numbers, it is no wonder King Abdullah has directed the government ministries to take a series of measures to make it easier for women to find jobs. In 2008, the Labor Ministry “modified Article 160 of the Labor Law. The original law stipulated that it was prohibited for men and women to interact even in a professional, business environment. This was revised, as was the law requiring women to gain the approval of their male guardians to accept or quit jobs. The Ministry of Commerce and Industry followed suit and in that same year reversed a ban on women staying in hotels alone.”

However, as evidenced by the recent fallout, women in Saudi Arabia still have an uphill climb. There are signs that King Abdullah is beginning to think about finding ways to curtail the authority of the religious scholars and “is working to assert [his] primacy over the country’s religious establishment. According to the August 2010 royal edict, only clerics associated with the Senior Council of Ulema are now authorized to issue fatwas.” His next step is finding a way to restrain senior and hardline clerics like Sheikh Abdel-Rahman al-Barrak who continues to issue fatwas. After all, the current controversy would not have risen to the level of an official fatwa, had Sheikh al-Barrak not decreed “in a February 2010 fatwa that those who support allowing the sexes to mix freely in Saudi Arabia should be executed unless they renounce their beliefs.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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