When Montaha was 5 years old, she was covered in third degree burns after playing near the kitchen fire. This was in the 1970s, long before her village in Saudi Arabia had a hospital, and her father refused to let her be treated by a male doctor. She suffered for three days before a housemaid with primitive nurse training was brought in. Although she survived, her struggle didn’t stop there. Montaha’s mother fought so that she could learn to read and attend an all-girls religious school. When she was 20, Montaha wanted to attend university, but had to wait for her father to sign documents to give her permission. Six years and three children later, she graduated with honors. She wanted to work as an instructor, but her husband refused. Now, she needs his permission to work. Burns aside, Montaha is not unique in Saudi Arabia.
One of the few remaining absolute monarchies, Saudi Arabia is home to the two holiest places in Islam, Mecca and Medina. It’s also the only country in the world to ban women from driving. In this deeply patriarchal and socially conservative society, women must have a “guardian’s” permission to travel, work, marry, and attend school. Vast oil reserves have meant that the kingdom has a long history of reliance on foreign labor which exacerbates the barriers to female labor inclusion and contributes to high levels of domestic unemployment. With a population of over 31 million, two-thirds of which are under the age of 30, the country is in a deep economic and unemployment crisis exacerbated by the declining price of oil. Add to this the unprecedented budget deficit of $87 billion and female unemployment of over 67 percent and you have a recipe for economic stagnation if not disaster.
Women account for over 51 percent of the graduating bodies of Saudi universities. Clearly, the barrier preventing women from working is not lack of education, nor is there a ban preventing female employment. So, if they can work, why don’t they? One powerful explanation points to deeply held beliefs about tradition and a strict social code. As Dionne Searcey of The New York Times observed: “Some women in Saudi Arabia are reluctant to take the jobs viewed as foreigners’ work.” And the mutawa, the kingdom’s infamous religious police, often harass female employees at work. Perhaps one of the most damning reasons is that many workplaces are unacceptable due to the strict gender segregation in the kingdom. Women must have their own offices, corridors, entrances, and elevators.
But one of the biggest barriers to employment is getting to work, as women cannot drive, and there is no public transportation. For these reasons, some have argued that promoting female employment is a waste of time and resources, especially since it’s widely assumed that women wouldn’t want to work anyway.
While it’s true that much would have to be done to accommodate women at work due to strict gender segregation and the driving ban, societal changes are happening. Prince Alwaleed recently called to lift the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. And more women are speaking out about the strict gender segregation and the role of the “guardian.” In a recent public opinion poll conducted by IRI’s Arab Women’s Leadership Institute in partnership with the Arab World for Research and Development and the Center for Poll and Measuring, over half of Saudi women polled supported women working outside the home. And this is good news for the economy. The World Bank estimates that Saudi Arabia loses up to 40 percent of income per capita due to women’s exclusion from the labor force. Perhaps more important than the impact on the economy is the fact that working women could fundamentally change Saudi society. Patricia Cortes, associate professor of public policy at Boston University has argued that: “If more women join the workforce, overall attitudes about them could begin to change, much the same as [has] happened in America decades ago when women went to work in huge numbers.”
These changes came too late for Montaha. She never made it to the Ministry of Education. But Ibtisam, her eldest daughter, managed to break with tradition. Ibtisam has a Master’s degree from Oxford University and is the chair of the English Department at a prominent Saudi university.
Times are changing, and employers are taking note. In fact, many employers prefer hiring Saudi women as “they have a low level of attrition, a better attention to detail, a willingness to perform and a productivity about twice that of Saudi men.” There is hope for the future, but the changes won’t come easily. It will take hard work, persistence, and a government quota that mandates firms employ women. The quota has already been used successfully to boost levels of employment for Saudi men; now it’s time to do the same thing for Saudi women.