Getting a job in Saudi Arabia is challenging for women. Many want to work, but there are strict limits on what they can do and where they can work.
But the kingdom now has a plan to expand job opportunities for women. It is proposing a women-only zone in one of its new industrial cities near Hofuf.
Anchor Marco Werman talks to Eman Fahad Al Nafjan, a Saudi women’s rights activist and blogger in Riyadh. Nafjan says the plan may offer women more jobs, but only of certain kinds.
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Marco Werman: Getting a job in Saudi Arabia is also challenging, especially for women. Many Saudi women want to work but there are strict limits on what they can do and where they can do it. They can’t mingle with men. But now the kingdom has a plan to expand job opportunities for women – it’s proposing a women only zone in one of it’s new industrial cities near Hofuf. Eman Nafjan is a Saudi women’s rights activist and blogger in Riyadh. Eman says the plan may offer women more jobs but only certain kinds.
Eman Nafjan: Nothing has been really clarified but what they say is that it will be in pharmaceuticals and food processing and things like that. But the most important thing that is being repeated over and over again, that these are jobs that are agreeable to a woman’s nature.
Werman: What does that mean?
Nafjan: It means that it does not go against her femininity. It’s very hard to understand what it means. It’s a very…
Werman: Sounds like it’s confusing you.
Nafjan: Yeah, it’s archaic. I think it means that there’s not going to be any manual labor but how can you go into manufacturing without manual labor and it’s…it is confusing. And of course this is the first city that’s being built right now and the plan is to build several across the kingdom. The issue has been on the table for over a decade. The ultra conservatives have been repeatedly asking for it, demanding it actually, that a completely gender segregated work area be provided for women.
Werman: You know, if conservatives have been pushing for this plan it doesn’t sound like the end goal is to have integration of the sexes. It sounds like this would be the goal – to keep them segregated.
Nafjan: Absolutely, yes. That’s the whole point and that’s why that half of the workforce will be men only comes very later. Whenever the city is talked about nobody ever says that because the goal is to appease the ultra conservatives.
Werman: Would Saudi women be able to start their own businesses or is part of the idea of this is that they have to work for other companies?
Nafjan: Saudi women do start their own businesses but the thing is that if you want to start a business your gender decides what kind of business you can start. You can’t for example be a construction project manager in Saudi Arabia. That’s impossible as a woman. An engineer; we have many girls graduate with law degrees and yet from the Ministry of Justice they’re not recognized as lawyers so they can’t open their own law firms. They have to become assistants in male law firms. So, they can open their own businesses but as long as it’s something like a spa, things that are feminine – dress design and things like that.
Werman: Right. So how have Saudi women generally reacted to this plan?
Nafjan: Because it’s so far in the future, I mean they’ve just started building it and things being built in Saudi Arabia take up to ten years, there hasn’t been much of a reaction. I think something that has really caused an uproar in Saudi society is the fact that women are being allowed to work openly in the malls. That has really caused a lot of reaction both for and against.
Werman: And working in the malls, that kind of retail work, shop, women?
Nafjan: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And there’s a lot of people who were completely against it. There have been envoys of ultra conservative shifts going to the Ministry of Labor the last couple of weeks 50 at a time to express their opposition to women working in the malls. Women working in the malls have been harassed by people telling them that they shouldn’t.
Werman: Clear something up for me. Are there many Saudi women who would just prefer the status quo with all the sexual segregation?
Nafjan: Saudi society is conservative but at the same time the practicalities of life have forced a lot of women to rethink the way that they live and I think that a lot of women want to go out into the workforce and nothing shows that as much as the number of women who have gone into retail as soon as it opened its doors despite all the backlash that they knew that they were getting.
Werman: I mean it sounds as if these little openings for employment for women at malls, at supermarkets, would ultimately do more for their independence than this city that seems to be causing a lot of confusion who would actually go there.
Nafjan: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Werman: Eman Nafjan is Saudi Women’s Rights activist speaking with us from Riyadh. Thank you so much.
Nafjan: Thank you.
Werman: Check out Eman Nafjan’s blog for more thoughts on women’s issues in Saudi Arabia. We’ve got a link at theworld.org.
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