Wednesday, April 20, 2005

No Reason Why So Many Saudi Women Go Without a Job

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

Samia is a very frustrated girl. Her father is old and retired and her only brother lives in another town with too many responsibilities to spare much of help. Her mother is sick and needs medical attention while her younger sisters are still in school and need daily transportation, as she does. All her problems begin and end with money. She can’t have enough of her teaching salary to satisfy all these needs. Her pay of around four thousand riyals is hardly enough to cover food, medicine and accommodation expenses. Much could have been saved if she could drive to take her sisters to school and on to hers. Later, she could take them back home and run other errands. Besides grocery, she has to take her father to the three-days-a-week physical therapy, her mother to hospital or her grandmother’s home. Every now and then the family needs to go to social events and join family gatherings.
Since money is a constant challenge, she tried to improve her income by working evenings. Jobs are scarce for women outside schools and hospitals. Taking few courses in English and computer were supposed to help. But in all the companies she applied to, the pay was very low. A thousand or a thousand and a half riyal is not worth the headache. Her transportation alone may eat most of that.
Still, she regards herself fortunate. Her cousin had to travel over 130 kilometers everyday to teach in a village school. She wakes up before dawn, prepares her kids for school, takes off with her colleagues in a bus that speeds dangerously over desert roads, then comes back before dinner to take care of a husband and five kids. Things are getting worse because she is pregnant, and her maid had escaped, again.
Both ladies count their blessings when they compare their situation to that of some hundreds of thousands of unemployed women of various levels of education. Some are illiterate and others are postgraduates, and most are high school and college graduates. With less than adequate modern skills and tools, they have little or no chance of getting suitable jobs with reasonable pay.
This may sound strange, even unbelievable when we remember that some seven million expatriates work in the Kingdom. A good percentage of these jobs can be easily filled with Saudi women. Male expatriates, for example, mostly take secretarial jobs; so are other positions like receptionists, phone operators, factory labors, school bus drivers, staff in women sections in companies and public department. Islam doesn’t prohibit women working in a mixed workplace, as long as they observe modesty rules. The prohibition comes from traditions of certain regions and environments. While we respect the choice of those women who prefer not to work in a mixed environment or drive cars, we demand the same right to choose for those who don’t mind.
Samia, I am sure, will love to drive and work in a lingerie shop. She doesn’t understand why going with a male driver, alone, can be any more decent than driving on her own. She can’t fathom how males selling women underwear to female shoppers could be more conservative than a woman selling such private stuff to her own sex. Or a male staff attending to her needs in a public office is more Islamic than a woman doing that for her.
That’s why she demands the right to vote and run for office. She wants her voice heard, her needs addressed, and her views and interests taken into consideration. Decisions that affect her life, her work, her very existence must come by her, and her opinions should be as important as that of her other half.
Samia is right. Not only about the need to be included in the decision-making process, but also in the studies now under way to improve the education system. If boys complain from the limited choices and the inadequate curriculum to market requirements, wait until you see the girls’. It was only recently that their forty-year-old curriculum was updated. Women’s college choices are still very limited. They can’t study engineering, d├ęcor, marketing and many other boys-only subjects. The idea is why bother to study for jobs that are not suitable for women. But if that was the case forty years ago, it is not true today.
Girls who had to study in these and similar areas abroad find their expertise very much in demand. And the pay is much better than most jobs offered to graduates of Saudi colleges.
I am encouraged by the decision of Saudia Airlines and Saudi Arabia Basic Industries Co. (SABIC) to train and employ Saudi females in suitable jobs. I hope the rest follow their lead ... and soon.

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