Saudi Arabian Working Women

Gender Issues: Saudi Working Women

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Dec 30, 2013    •    1172 Views

What a difference a job makes!

In Saudi Arabia, although many women still need a man’s “yes,” for most major and minor decisions ranging from marrying to mall shopping, a recent decree from King Abdullah opened some professional doors. For lingerie stores, the decision meant women rather than men would sell bras, nightgowns, underpants.

Imagine for a moment 2 women, covered from head to toe in their black abayas and niqabs, eyes only showing, surrounded by racks of the pinks and reds and purples of bright undergarments. One of those women, her skills monumentally underutilized before the King’s decree, had been watching TV, exercising and surfing the internet. Now a store manager, she spends her days in the consumption sector of the Saudi economy.

Described in a New Yorker article, after a rocky start, a “feminization” process has begun in Saudi Arabia. Eight years ago, when the Saudi Minister of Labor announced that male clerks in lingerie shops would be replaced by women, the pressure from the “religious police” reversed the policy. Then though, citing the discomfort of buying intimate apparel from men, women boycotted lingerie stores. In 2011, when women who could prove they were looking for a job applied for unemployment benefits, their numbers topped 1.5 million. It appears that the Saudi King responded with his lingerie store decree that included other female related department store jobs.

With work, Saudi women seem to have more value at home. “Husbands respect women who are working,” one woman commented. Others cite the leverage that a job gives them when disagreeing with husbands or just trying to visit children living with a former spouse’s family after a divorce.

In The Price of Everything, NY Times journalist Eduardo Porter says that as women increasingly entered the labor force in the US, American society profoundly changed. One cause of the change was the new price of women’s labor. Once women worked outside the home, they became more “valuable.”

Sources and Resources: The New Yorker article, “Shop Girl” was excellent (but is gated)! Conveying history, Saudi gender issues, personal profiles and how the female writer of the story responded to the “religious police,” when she briefly uncovered her face at a mall, the piece illustrates the complexities of “feminization” in Saudi Arabia. You might also want to return to other econlife posts on Saudi women here and here.

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