November 17, 2006 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 300

Public Debate in Saudi Arabia on Employment Opportunities for Women

November 17, 2006
Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 300


Public debate has flared up recently in Saudi Arabia over the issue of women in the workplace, following the government's decision to expand the number of areas in which women may work, as well as to allow only Saudi women to work as saleswomen in shops catering to women, such as women's clothing, lingerie and cosmetics shops. The government decision provoked opposition from Muslim clerics, who consider it to be against shari'a for a woman to work outside the home. On the other hand, the government decision was welcomed by intellectuals - both male and female - who see women's employment as an important step towards improving women's status in Saudi Arabia.

Five Women for Every Available Position

Figures from the Saudi Labor Ministry show that women make up only 5% of the Saudi workforce - the lowest proportion in the world. [1] This is in striking contrast with the fact that females make up 70% of the students in Saudi institutes of higher education. [2] Thus, there is a growing belief in Saudi Arabia that "the number of women who are currently studying in universities and who will in the future demand work will be greater than the number of women working today. According to the figures, in another five years, there will be five women [candidates] for every available position..." [3]

In a June 3, 2006 article in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh, columnist Muhammad Bin Suleiman Al-Uhaidab quoted a letter sent to him by a young Saudi woman reflecting the employment problems encountered by women. The young woman wrote: "I attended a teacher training college like all my sisters and friends and like all the [other] Saudi girls, since this is the only area [of employment] that has ever been [open] to us. Although I didn't want to be a teacher, I finished my training... and now my certificate has been lying in the drawer for five years... Four years ago, my sister and I got a [teaching] contract [as part of the government's Program] for Fighting Illiteracy. [We were sent] to a small mountain village in the middle of the desert which cannot be reached by private car and has no electricity, [running] water or phones, [and where people live] in Stone Age conditions... After one week, I came back [home]... Two years later, I received a contract [to work] at a school in Tabuk in an administrative capacity, as a supervisor. After two years my contract was revoked... and I stayed home for another three years. [These days] I am painting pictures and selling them [for a living]..." [4]

Difficulties in Implementing the Government Decision to Expand Employment Opportunities for Women

The issue of women's employment was discussed at the National Dialogue Conference, held in Al-Madina in 2004. The recommendations formulated in the discussions were submitted to the Saudi Shura Council, which outlined a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the problem. The Saudi government later passed Resolution 120 for expanding women's employment opportunities.

Resolution 120 included the following decisions: Government institutions would issue licenses for women who wish to engage in economic activity, and would form special departments for women; the Saudi Council of Commerce and Industry Bureaus will form a women's committee to identify various professional fields in which women can train and find employment; the Saudi Foundation for Human Resources Development would train women in various fields; areas would be prepared for special industrial projects that would employ women; the Ministry of Labor would develop options for distance working as one of the new modes of employment suitable for women, and would formulate a comprehensive national program for women's employment. Section 8 of the resolution states that only Saudi women would be allowed to work in shops for women' products. [5]

However, the implementation of Resolution 120 ran into difficulties when the Ministry of Labor postponed it and later revoked the resolution altogether. The explanation given was that shop owners "had found it difficult to implement the resolution within the specified timeframe, and needed more time to prepare their shops [for the changes]...," [6] but some said that the government had yielded to pressures of various religious elements opposed to the resolution. [7] Saudi Labor Minister Dr. Ghazi Al-Qusaibi stated on July 28, 2006 that "the [Labor] Ministry is not acting to [promote] women's employment... [since] the best place for a woman to serve is in her [own] home..." [8] Two months later, he denied that Resolution 120 had been revoked, stating that "there is no option but to start [finding] jobs for the millions of women [in Saudi Arabia]." [9] Recently, he clarified that "no woman will be employed without the explicit consent of her guardian. We will also make sure that the [woman's] job will not interfere with her work at home with her family, or with her eternal duty of raising her children..." [10]

At the same time, the Saudi authorities have begun to take some measures encouraging women to join the workforce. In November 2006, the Saudi Women's Information Center is planning a symposium in Riyadh, sponsored by the Saudi royal family, dealing with "the importance of women's employment in promoting social development." [11] In addition, a pioneering project in Jeddah trained a group of 20 women to work as supermarket cashiers. The trainers in the project said that they were happy to take part in this activity... [and] to develop women's abilities in this new field [of employment]. [12] In light of the success of the fist session, the course opened a second session and additional women were trained to work as cashiers. [13]

The Public Debate on Employment of Women in Clothing Shops: Is Employment of Women Opposed to Shari'a?

The Saudi government's decision to allow women to work in women's clothing shops, which was postponed, revoked, reintroduced, and then postponed once again, sparked a public debate on whether women's employment was permitted by shari'a. Some of the questions debated were whether work outside the home compromises a woman's honor, whether shari'a permits women to work with men, and whether shari'a differentiates between work appropriate for men and work appropriate for women.

*Prominent Saudi Sheikh: A Woman Should Stay at Home

Prominent Sheikh Salah Bin Fawzan Al-Fawzan, member of the Saudi Council of Senior 'Ulama, wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Watan: "Allah created man and woman, and endowed each with an inborn inclination for certain types of work - because human society needs both men and women to work in their designated [areas]: men work outside the home and women work inside it... If each does their job in their proper environment, this is best for society...

"[Some] say that a woman who has no job outside the home is unemployed. We say to them that it is the woman who does have a job outside the home who is [truly] unemployed, [since] she does not do her work in the home, and thus society does not benefit from the work that nobody [can] do except for her. To those who advocate [hiring] a servant to do [the woman's] work [in the home], we say that a servant will not do the job with the same emotional [commitment] as the lady of the house, and the work will not be perfect... Those who call upon women to take jobs that are inappropriate for them are not really interested in women's employment as such - they [merely] want to strip women of their honor." [14]

In response to Sheikh Al-Fawzan's statements, Zina 'Abdullah Aal 'Ubeid wrote in Al-Watan: "It is saddening that [Sheikh Al-Fawzan] condemns all [women] who work outside their homes. Does the sheikh regard a woman doctor, who is greatly needed [by our society], as indecent? Does he regard a teacher who educates [children] and shapes the minds of the future generation as indecent? Is a clerk who toils for her living... indecent [in his eyes]? How do you expect a woman to be a good wife, aware of her rights? How do you expect her to be a [good] mother and raise the future generations?... How do you expect her to be an active member of society and to work for her religion and faith? By telling her to stay at home, we are consigning her to a marginal role in society, with limited importance..." [15]

*Intervention of the Religious Police in the Issue of Women's Employment

In July 2006, the religious police ordered the Saudi perfume company Al-Qazaz to fire 69 women who were employed in sales and as laboratory workers. [16] Following criticism in the Saudi papers, the religious police published a clarification, stating: "We will not stand in the way of women's employment, as long as it does not violate shari'a principles [as when women work unveiled, or with men]..." [17] About two months later, the Ministry of Labor instructed Al-Qazaz to rehire the women who had been discharged. [18]

Articles in the Saudi press rebutted the religious police claim that Islam bans women from working alongside men. Columnist Shteiwi Al-Gheithi wrote: "Can we condemn all the nurses throughout [Muslim] history who cared for Muslim [soldiers] during wars and conquests?... Can we accuse all the nurses in our hospitals of having relations with men, directly or indirectly? Can we accuse all the women [in our society] of mixing with men in the marketplaces and [in other] public places? If we do that, will there be even one women who is not guilty [of this 'crime']?..." [19]

*Communiqué Signed by 130 Men Sparks Controversy

In response to Resolution 120, some Islamist websites posted a communiqué signed by 130 individuals - all of them men - opposing the principle of equality between men and women. The communiqué states: "Any call for complete equality between men and women is absurd in light of shari'a and common sense, since [men and women] have different roles... Shari'a, our reason, and our senses all point to the superiority of men over women... A woman who frequently leaves [the home] unnecessarily is a indecent woman... while a woman who stays at home and performs her duty to her God, her husband, and her children is a commendable woman. Westernized [Muslims] seduce and deceive the Muslim woman in the ugliest [possible] manner by glorifying [women] who work outside the home - even flight attendants - and disparaging women who stay at home, fulfilling their duty to their husbands and raising their children..." [20]

Amira Kashghari, an English teacher at a Saudi women's college, responded in Al-Watan: "Islam explains that... men are not superior to women... Women and men complement each other... Is women's employment, in accordance with Resolution 120, opposed to shari'a? Would women want to work in clothing shops if they had no need [to work?] So why spread negative attitudes among Muslim men and women by unjustly accusing the [working] women of violating shari'a? Why depict Resolution [120] as a disaster, when it [only] seeks to help women by enabling them to work in a dignified manner that preserves their honor and faith? Why fault the resolution by intimidating [people] and taking a patronizing position which assumes that women are the source of all evil and corruption?..." [21]

Saudi Columnist: Religious Objections to Resolution 120 are Motivated by Economic Interests

After the passage of Resolution 120, many businessmen and shop owners criticized it in the media, presenting religious arguments and warning that it would cause moral corruption. In response, some argued that this opposition was motivated by economic, rather than moral, considerations. Resolution 120, they explained, decrees that some positions must be reserved for women only, and this would prevent business owners from employing (male) foreign workers who earn much less than a Saudi woman expects to earn.

'Abd Al-Rahman Bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz Aal Al-Sheikh, columnist for the daily Al-Riyadh, argued that the religious discourse against the resolution was actually generated by "a group of business owners and merchants who are used to reversing decisions of this sort and have always done so in the past, and for one reason only: They think that this resolution, and past resolutions for the Saudization of the workforce, run counter to their [financial] interests... A Saudi [in their business] - man or woman - will discover the conditions [under which they employ their workers] and their despicable work methods, and [this] will cost them much of their income. [A Saudi worker's salary] is much higher than that of a non-Saudi - who obeys their every command, works longer hours, and is willing to work for less pay [than a Saudi worker]... This is their main reason for rejecting Resolution [120]. Their rejection does not stem from 'religious' considerations... [They are] exploiting their religion for purposes of [financial] gain..." [22]

Resolution 120 Improves Women's Economic Status and Guards Their Chastity

Supporters of Resolution 120 said that the resolution would not only improve women's status in Saudi society, but would also improve women's economic status and help guard their chastity. Amira Kashghari addressed the economic issue, saying: "Anyone who monitors the status of women in Saudi society understands the social and economic changes that... woman have encountered, in terms of their need to support their families and in terms of the nation's economic need for women to join the workforce. Many women have nobody to support them, such as widows, divorcées, or women whose husbands cannot work for some physical or psychological reason. Will we leave them to beg or to degrade themselves? Or will we give them [other] options [by] enabling them to work in areas befitting their nature and their dignity, in a healthy, clean, and tolerant atmosphere?... Shari'a permits women to work, and our society needs them to work [in order to improve their] living conditions, economic status, and social status..." [23]

*Saudi Journalist: I Know of No Other Country Where Women's Lingerie Is Sold by Men

Journalist Ghada 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Huti said that a woman working, for example, in a women's lingerie shop would prevent women shoppers from being harassed by salesmen. She wrote in Al-Watan: "I do not know of any other [country] where women's clothing is sold by men, except for this country. This is one of the strangest and silliest paradoxes [I have ever encountered]. Our society, [which is] known for its absolute and often unjustified conservativeness, in which everyone tries to shelter women from any shameful or suspicious act... subjects women to indecent harassment by foreign workers who are the only ones allowed to sell women's clothing - and you know very well exactly what type of clothing I am referring to... Would it not be preferable if the salesperson were a woman, who knows about such things, and if the [shopper] approached her alone, or accompanied by her husband? Or is it preferable for a woman to enter a shop [in which there is] a salesman who is usually alone, and to have him close the door behind her?..." [24]

Saudi writer Maram 'Abd Al-Rahman Makkawi, who lives in Britain and is working on her Ph.D., also expressed support for Resolution 120, but at the same time voiced some doubt as to its effectiveness. In an Al-Watan article, she asked: "Has anyone considered the problem of transportation, for example? Furthermore, can this resolution [really] be implemented in all shops and in all cities and regions? I can see the shops on Al-Tahliya Street in Jeddah [employing] women without too much difficulty, but I cannot see this happening in, for example, the traditional markets... I [also] think that attempts to open up new areas [of employment] for women without solving the [women's] other problems, and without an intensive campaign to change society's attitude towards women, from the schoolbooks to the preachers' pulpits... will only aggravate our problems instead of alleviating them, and will provide a golden opportunity for [the proponents of the slogan] 'be pretty... and stay home' to announce their victory...

"In Britain, I read every day about job opportunities at international companies like British Petroleum, Shell, and Microsoft, including companies with branches [in Saudi Arabia] - but over there, [these jobs are open] only to men. Here in Britain, they have a program that attempts to redress the under-representation of women [in the workforce], particularly in the spheres of science and technology, so they welcome [women candidates] like myself. My supervisor, who is planning to work in New Zealand, asked me if I would like to work there too after I finish my studies. Fortunately, I have been offered jobs at the ends of the earth, but in my own country, [the same jobs] are not open to me...

"We must encourage companies and institutions that offer suitable jobs to women and are considerate of their special [needs], and assure [these companies] that [employing women] is legitimate and even necessary... I hope my message reaches the ears of the [Saudi] Labor Minister, so that I don't return to Saudi Arabia [only] to find that doors are closed [to me]. I want to be close to my mother in Jeddah, but I find myself traveling far away in order to work for a living..." [25]

Calls to Permit Women to Practice Law

Along with the public debate about permitting women to work in retail, there have also been calls to permit them to practice law, a profession from which they are currently barred. Fatma Kabil, who 27 years ago earned a law degree from the University of Cairo and who was the first Saudi woman to qualify as a lawyer, appealed to the Justice Ministry for a license to practice law in Saudi Arabia, arguing that she had all the necessary qualifications and experience. In an Al-Watan article, she wrote: "I refuse to [work] in some man's law firm. I want a license to run my own firm and practice law. The law is very clear and precise in this regard. There is no law against a woman opening a firm... In addition, where are [women] law graduates [supposed to] do their internship?" Kabil stressed that the problem lay neither with shari'a nor with Saudi law, but with Saudi custom, and asked: "Why must we travel to other countries to gain experience [in our profession]? Why shouldn't we bring pride to our country and benefit our homeland with our knowledge, experience, and expertise? It is a mistake to say that [Saudi] women cannot yet be lawyers, and that law should remain an exclusively masculine domain. This profession has nothing to do with [gender]... Our courts [should have] special departments to help women... so that they will not be exploited..." [26]

Rim Al-Habib, a 29-year-old Saudi woman who earned a law degree from Harvard and is a member of the team defending former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, also protested the fact that Saudi women lawyers could not practice in their country. "It is strange," she said, "that 'Abd Al-'Aziz University has a law department [open to women] when women are not permitted to work in this profession. Will the graduates of this department be employed as veterinary surgeons?"

'Abd Khazindar, columnist for the Saudi dailies Al-Riyadh and 'Ukaz, wrote in support of the Saudi women lawyers: "If there is a law preventing women [from practicing law in Saudi Arabia], is it based on tradition or on a bunch of excuses? As far as I know, a woman used to discuss matters with the Prophet [Muhammad], and even argued with him in defense of her rights... If a woman could present arguments to the Prophet, why shouldn't she argue a case in front of a judge? Not every woman is capable of defending herself [in court], since there are many laws and changing regulations. So why shouldn't [a woman] hire another woman, who is versed in the laws and regulations of the state, to defend her? A woman cannot open up her heart to a male [lawyer], but she can with [a woman lawyer]." [27]

*L. Azuri is a research fellow at MEMRI.

[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 23, 2006.

[2] Figures cited by Dr. 'Abd Al-Wahid Khalid Al-Hamid are from an official Saudi Economy Ministry document. The statistics were compiled as part of Saudi Arabia's eighth five-year development plan, and were released with the approval of high-level state officials. Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 10, 2006.

[3] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 24, 2006.

[4] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 3, 2006.

[5] 'Ukaz (Saudi Arabia), June 1, 2004.

[6] 'Ukaz (Saudi Arabia), May 15, 2004; Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 22, 2006.

[7] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 18, 2006.

[8] 'Ukaz (Saudi Arabia), July 28, 2006.

[9] Al-Quds Al-'Arabi (London), September 25, 2006.

[10] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 5, 2006.

[11] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), November 9, 2006.

[12] 'Ukaz (Saudi Arabia), August 14, 2006.

[13] 'Ukaz (Saudi Arabia), August 17, 2006.

[14] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 26, 2006.

[15] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), July 20, 2006.

[16] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 16, 2006.

[17] Saudi Religious Police website, July 22, 2006,

[18] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 10, 2006.

[19] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), July 21, 2006.


[21] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), April 18, 2006.

[22] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), May 19, 2005.

[23] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), April 18, 2006.

[24] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 29, 2006.

[25] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 17, 2006.

[26] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 23, 2005.

[27] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), April 23, 2006.

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