Fri, Feb 24, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Women in a changing Saudi Arabia

The world of work is opening up to women in the kingdom and economic freedom is beginning to empower them in other ways, too

By Brian Whitaker  /  THE GUARDIAN , RIYADH

A heavy metal door guards the entrance to the women's section of the Nardeen lighting company in Riyadh. To gain admittance, you press the bell and wait. In my case it is a long wait because the arrival of a male visitor brings production to a halt inside the factory while the entire workforce of 30 women shroud their faces in black.

Eventually I am allowed in, only to hear a scream from one woman in the distance who is still wrestling to pull her abaya over an orange-colored dress. Unsure of the protocol, I turn my back to await the all-clear.

Working from 7am to 3pm with a lunch break and a prayer break, the women assemble 2,800 fluorescent light fittings every day. It's fiddly work but, even with the woollen gloves they wear to protect their skin, they slip the wires and other bits and pieces into position at lightning speed. Once an hour a loud bell rings, signaling that they must cover themselves again because a man is coming to collect their finished work.

The women's section at the factory, which opened last April, is a sign of changing times in Saudi Arabia. It is one of half a dozen projects sponsored by a charity to provide needy women with jobs in a man-free environment.

It may look a bit like a sweatshop but the women here seem happy enough. They are paid the same rates as men and earn 2,000 riyals (US$533) a month, plus bonuses if they exceed the daily production quota -- not a lot considering the country's oil wealth, but comparable with what some Saudi teachers earn.

While the factory satisfies the kingdom's traditionalists on one count -- keeping the sexes apart -- the very idea of women going out to work is still controversial. Even among Saudi women themselves, as many as 39 percent, according to one survey, still believe their rightful place is at home. For other women, though, the big question is not the supply of jobs but how to get to work if they take one -- in this most traditional of Arab states, women are still forbidden, by custom, if not specifically by law, to drive.

"The problem with the Saudi female is transportation," said Abeer al-Shuaibi, a spokeswoman for the Nahda society, the charity behind the factory project. "Some families do not like daughters going in taxis."

With Riyadh's scarce buses considered unsuitable for women, some rely on male family members to drive them to work. Others, like Hindi al-Tuwajri, divorced and with three children, pay a driver 400 riyals a month -- 20 percent of her total income -- to take her to the factory each day, a 20-minute journey.

Gradually, Saudis are beginning to realize that the exclusion of women from meaningful activity outside the home just to preserve old desert traditions is a waste of talent and resources. More than half the kingdom's university graduates are female and yet women account for only about 5 percent of the workforce.

SLOW STEPS

Although women still cannot vote or drive, the last few years have brought important changes, even if they stop well short of equality. Women can now officially exist in their own right with their own identity cards, rather than being included on the card of their husband or father. Travel restrictions have been eased, allowing them to get blanket permission from a male relative for travel abroad, rather than needing separate permission for each trip.

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