Educated Saudi women face a brick wall of restrictions

Manar Saud graduated in May from Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, with a master’s degree in organizational leadership, paid for by a Saudi government scholarship. She came home to Riyadh eager to put her new skills to work, but after six months of looking for a job, she is still unemployed.

“It’s really sad,” said Saud, 27, sipping coffee in a Starbucks, a black scarf framing her face, with floral trim on her long black abaya robe. “You come back so well prepared and so eager. Then all of a sudden, there is a brick wall in your face.”

Saud is part of a rising generation of young Saudi women caught between a government spending billions to educate and employ them, and a deeply conservative religious society that fiercely resists women in the workplace.

Although Saudi Arabia has vast oil riches, its per capita gross domestic product ranks only 40th in the world, and many here note that the national economy would be stronger if half the brainpower in the country was put to better use.

“Teach me. Invest in me. Let me work. I don’t get it,” Saud said. “My friends are all in the same situation. What’s wrong here?”

Unemployment among Saudi women who want to work is 34 percent — almost five times as great as the 7 percent unemployment rate for men, according to government figures. Those unemployed women are disproportionately college-educated. Of Saudis receiving unemployment benefits, 86 percent are women, and 40 percent of those women have college degrees.

In a country where more than two-thirds of the population is younger than 30, thousands more college-educated women each year try to enter the workforce, and many of them are striking out.

“There are women out there desperate to find jobs,” said Samar Fatany, a leading Saudi feminist author.

Fatany and other women interviewed in the capital and in Jiddah, the commercial hub on the Red Sea, said that young women are growing increasingly impatient with restrictions on their careers in a country that does not permit women to drive or vote.

Women have become increasingly aware of — and insistent about — their career possibilities because of King Abdullah’s massive spending on college scholarships and efforts to create more jobs for Saudi women, Fatany said.

“Young women are not as isolated as before. They realize that they don’t have to blindly follow what their fathers tell them,” she said. “There is no turning back. We are in the process of modernizing Saudi Arabia.”

Abdullah, under pressure to close the gap between an aging royal family and a young population clamoring for change, has been an advocate of women’s education and employment.

Saudi Arabia had historically lagged behind its Persian Gulf neighbors in women’s education, but in recent decades, it has sharply reduced female illiteracy, virtually eliminating it among women 15 to 24, according to the World Bank.

In the past 10 years, the number of universities in Saudi Arabia has more than doubled, from 16 to 33, including the world’s largest women-only university, Princess Nora Bint Abdul Rahman University in Riyadh, which opened last year. It has 37,000 students and a capacity of 60,000.

Abdullah also created a government-funded scholarship program that has sent thousands of Saudi women — including Saud — to foreign universities since 2005. About 145,000 Saudis, including 40,000 women, are studying on the scholarships this year in more than 30 countries.

The king created the scholarships after meeting in 2005 with then-President George W. Bush at his Texas ranch. Both leaders wanted to improve a relationship damaged by the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were Saudis.

The number of Saudis studying in the United States dropped to about 4,000 after the terrorist attacks. But that number has since skyrocketed, reaching 71,000 this fall, including 17,000 women.

“The vision is that these people will come back and fix our problems,” said Fahad al-Fahad, a business consultant in Jiddah who specializes in labor issues. “But you have to find jobs for these educated women. They should be the elite of the society, but they are just sitting at home.”

Job prospects for women are complicated by the kingdom’s severely restrictive religious culture. Under Saudi Arabia’s austere interpretation of Islam, it is considered a violation of God’s will for unrelated men and women to mingle. The most devout Saudi men find it dishonorable for others to even know the name of their wife or mother. They oppose women working or leaving their homes unaccompanied by a male relative. They believe it is an Islamic duty to honor women and protect families by having women stay at home and not be distracted by outside employment.

“Women are like pearls,” said one Saudi man. “We must protect them.”

The Saudi royal family has a long history of making social reforms slowly and cautiously to avoid antagonizing the country’s influential religious leaders. As a result, Saudi society is still segregated by gender to an astonishing degree. Women are rarely seen outside their homes without abayas and veils that cover everything but their eyes. They are not permitted to mingle with men to whom they are not related. Women need permission from a male relative to travel, get medical care and receive other basic government services.

Restaurants have separate entrances and eating areas — one for single men, one for families. Starbucks and other coffee shops have private sitting areas with tall walls to keep women from being seen by men. Shopping malls have women-only floors. Banks have side-by-side branches — one for women and one for men.

At Princess Nora University, the country’s new showcase university for women, only female teachers are allowed in classrooms. Male professors teach by video link from a remote location; the students can see the professor, but he never sees them.

It is unusual to see a woman working in public anywhere other than shops, and even then mostly in shops that cater to women by selling clothing, lingerie or groceries. Many of those shops have signs banning men from entering unless accompanied by a female relative.

The segregation of the sexes is enforced by “religious police,” bearded men who roam shopping malls and other public places to ensure that unmarried, unrelated men and women are not mingling.

Saudi women have typically also worked in fields such as medicine, nursing and teaching. Abdullah’s government is trying to open more jobs for women, in some cases by urging employers to create gender-segregated work areas in factories and other businesses.

The government recently announced plans to lift a ban on female lawyers arguing cases in a courtroom. They are currently allowed to represent clients and offer legal advice, but not in court.

Officials acknowledge that change comes slowly in such a hard-line religious environment.

“It is not happening in as many numbers as we would like, but it is happening,” said Labor Minister Adel Fakeih. “Women are working in the banking sector, in manufacturing, in training and development, human resources, in consulting.”

Fakeih said his department was trying to create jobs that allow women to work from home so they can still manage children and household responsibilities.

“We want to open a whole new world for women, and at the same time will be in tune with our culture with how we’d like our families to continue to be,” he said. “We don’t want necessarily to copy a Western lifestyle.”

Fakeih noted that some women don’t have a “sense of urgency” to work, because under Islamic sharia law, men are required to be financially responsible for women. Even if a woman earns far more money than her husband, he is required to pay for her needs, he said.

“She can decide not to spend any of her money,” Fakeih said. “She can just keep her money to go to Hawaii or something. That’s the law.”

Job opportunities for women are also limited by Saudi Arabia’s two-tiered labor force.

The country has about 28 million people, and almost a third of them are foreign workers. As Saudi Arabia became rich with oil revenue, an economy emerged in which Saudis gravitated to good-paying, and often cushy, government jobs, while lower-paid foreigners were brought in to be the nation’s cooks, barbers, shopkeepers, electricians and factory workers. About 90 percent of private-sector workers are foreigners.

Saudi officials realize they can’t grow the government fast enough to employ the 300,000 or so young Saudis who enter the labor force each year. So they have begun an aggressive program to increase the number of Saudis in private businesses by offering incentives and penalties to private employers based on their number of Saudi employees.

Fakeih said that in the past year, the government’s efforts resulted in more than 335,000 new private-sector jobs for Saudis. Only 15 percent of privately employed Saudis are women, but that number is rising, he said.

But for young women such as Saud, and her friend, Tahany Omar, who earned an MBA at Shenandoah University last year, that trend hasn’t translated into jobs that match their skills.

Omar, 36, works in a poorly paid job at an insurance company, making less than she did before she got her MBA. “I have the experience, and I have the credentials,” she said. “But I can’t find a good job in my country.”

Saud said she wants to use her master’s degree to teach, preferably at the college level. She has applied for several jobs, but with no luck. So she sits at home, unemployed, growing increasingly disillusioned.

“It’s a big disappointment,” she said. “I’m hoping for a better future, but I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon.”

Washington Post

  • Constantin7

    Poor girl, you were surprised to hit this wall of brick ? You ask yourself what is wrong in Saudi Arabia and why an educated woman like you cannot find work (while foreigners men with less education can). I have an answer for you with one single word: ISLAM.
    Go back to the US and you will snatch a job and realize your dreams as a free educated honorable independent and proud woman. In Saudi Arabia you are considered a being with lesser intellectual capabilities than a man (any man), while anywhere else in the world and particularly in the US and the west you are considered and valued on your own achievements and education without any reference to your gender. 
    Saudi Arabia is the most retarded and backward society in the WORLD (I am not sure if they compete with Afghanistan), because their women are the most neglected and disrespected and the least educated in the WORLD.
    You my lady (educated lady), your testimony is worth half of a man’s testimony in Saudi Arabia (any man even if this man cannot read and write). This is the result of your religion my poor lady. Good luck for you !!!!

  • Constantin7

    Poor girl, you were surprised to hit this wall of brick ? You ask yourself what is wrong in Saudi Arabia and why an educated woman like you cannot find work (while foreigners men with less education can). I have an answer for you with one single word: ISLAM.
    Go back to the US and you will snatch a job and realize your dreams as a free educated honorable independent and proud woman. In Saudi Arabia you are considered a being with lesser intellectual capabilities than a man (any man), while anywhere else in the world and particularly in the US and the west you are considered and valued on your own achievements and education without any reference to your gender. 
    Saudi Arabia is the most retarded and backward society in the WORLD (I am not sure if they compete with Afghanistan), because their women are the most neglected and disrespected and the least educated in the WORLD.
    You my lady (educated lady), your testimony is worth half of a man’s testimony in Saudi Arabia (any man even if this man cannot read and write). This is the result of your religion my poor lady. Good luck for you !!!!

  • nagy_michael2

    Its a shame the Saudi goverment is afraid of the extremists who set their views on freedom and women in general. They must be afraid of woman like that who are willing to help in structure and building of the nation. Shame on you Saudi Arabia and shame on these extremists who seek nothing but control for themselves. These guys are no different than hezbollah of Lebanon or the mullahs of Iran. They want to accept the facts that the way its and live with it. When referring to hezbollah here and comparing them to Salfists. Is basically if you don’t agree with them you get killed. so basically there is no difference between the two groups IMO.

    • libnan1

       Your comment is rude, insulting, abusive, derogatory and defamatory.

      All comments should abide by respecting the Columbian
      community and refraining from personal attacks and use of inappropriate
      language .

      • nagy_michael2

        Aoun and Nassrallah are rude and insulting and always uses degorgatory and defamatory languages. They’re insulting to the living and to the dead. they’re insulting to their own children and families. People like that belongs in hell who do not care about anything but themselves. Apparently you just a toyboy used to cheer them up.. Your aoun is nothing but a lolypop to Nassrallah and he will erase him when he doesn’t serve his purpose.

    • Moe2000

       Gagea boy You don’t miss a chance putting the Hizb or Iran into something do you? In Iran women can drive vote work and much more.

      • nagy_michael2

        I am nobody’s boy. I did like Bashir Gemyal but not too much fan of Geagea.. What difference does it make if you’re ruled by the sword or hezbollah guns at your head? everytime someone criticized them and catch them in the act. they sent assasins after them.. do you think we’re stupid to believe that israel been killing March 14th politicians and ISF personals? so your freedom is taken one way or another. In Iran yes women drive but when they protest they left to die without getting medical help. they’re getting raped in prison and shot with bullets afterward. the bullets i heard some families were billed back to their families otherwise they don’t the dead bodies back. you call that freedom? grow up man..

        • Moe2000

           When a foreign president George W Bush goes on TV and states he just funded the Iranian opposition $500,000,000 to destabilize Iran, I would have treated them the same as traitors.

        • nagy_michael2

          George Bush confess giving Iranian opposition 500K to destablize iran. You must be from Bekaa smoking weed. First it was the green party that won the election but lost it because KKKameini wanted crazy ahmed in there. so they protest and since some even iranian forces didn’t want to beat and kill protesters. They called upon hamas and Hezbollah to help them kill rioters and abuse them to the max to stop them from protesting. It was the western nations including the US who declared that Mujahadeen Khalq as terrorists and this group was opposing the current regime. stop fabricating stories and the Iranian people are tired of their regime just like the majority of Syrians. they’re tired of hezbollah and when if they ever catch their breath, the iranian opposition will not dismantle the mullahs, but also dump hezbollah..

  • nagy_michael2

    Its a shame the Saudi goverment is afraid of the extremists who set their views on freedom and women in general. They must be afraid of woman like that who are willing to help in structure and building of the nation. Shame on you Saudi Arabia and shame on these extremists who seek nothing but control for themselves. These guys are no different than hezbollah of Lebanon or the mullahs of Iran. They want to accept the facts that the way its and live with it. When referring to hezbollah here and comparing them to Salfists. Is basically if you don’t agree with them you get killed. so basically there is no difference between the two groups IMO.

    • libnan1

       Your comment is rude, insulting, abusive, derogatory and defamatory.

      All comments should abide by respecting the Columbian
      community and refraining from personal attacks and use of inappropriate
      language .

      • nagy_michael2

        Aoun and Nassrallah are rude and insulting and always uses degorgatory and defamatory languages. They’re insulting to the living and to the dead. they’re insulting to their own children and families. People like that belongs in hell who do not care about anything but themselves. Apparently you just a toyboy used to cheer them up.. Your aoun is nothing but a lolypop to Nassrallah and he will erase him when he doesn’t serve his purpose.

    • Moe2000

       Gagea boy You don’t miss a chance putting the Hizb or Iran into something do you? In Iran women can drive vote work and much more.

      • nagy_michael2

        I am nobody’s boy. I did like Bashir Gemyal but not too much fan of Geagea.. What difference does it make if you’re ruled by the sword or hezbollah guns at your head? everytime someone criticized them and catch them in the act. they sent assasins after them.. do you think we’re stupid to believe that israel been killing March 14th politicians and ISF personals? so your freedom is taken one way or another. In Iran yes women drive but when they protest they left to die without getting medical help. they’re getting raped in prison and shot with bullets afterward. the bullets i heard some families were billed back to their families otherwise they don’t the dead bodies back. you call that freedom? grow up man..

        • Moe2000

           When a foreign president George W Bush goes on TV and states he just funded the Iranian opposition $500,000,000 to destabilize Iran, I would have treated them the same as traitors.

        • nagy_michael2

          George Bush confess giving Iranian opposition 500K to destablize iran. You must be from Bekaa smoking weed. First it was the green party that won the election but lost it because KKKameini wanted crazy ahmed in there. so they protest and since some even iranian forces didn’t want to beat and kill protesters. They called upon hamas and Hezbollah to help them kill rioters and abuse them to the max to stop them from protesting. It was the western nations including the US who declared that Mujahadeen Khalq as terrorists and this group was opposing the current regime. stop fabricating stories and the Iranian people are tired of their regime just like the majority of Syrians. they’re tired of hezbollah and when if they ever catch their breath, the iranian opposition will not dismantle the mullahs, but also dump hezbollah..

  • Persistent

    BINGO, BANGO, BUNGO..  Just look at the messanger….This is the same saudi government and her clones that are concerned about the human rights, well being, freedom and democracy for the syrian people. Democracy will certainly flourish in Syria as it is Saudia Arabia and the gulf in general. I can not wait until we move backward to the 14th century ….

    The problem is not ISLAM, it is the CULTURE!!!!…..There are a lot of educated and successful women in the islamic world, but I must admit mostly in non arabic speaking nations.

    • Constantin7

      Persistent, the culture in the Arab countries is drawn mainly from ISLAM. Look at the status of Arts and creativity in the Arab world it is pretty much non-existent. Just look at the Lebanese muslims (who are the most educated in the Arab world) still they cannot express themselves freely because of the culture drawn of Islam, where every form of ART is HARAM !

      No my friend, ISLAM is the root of all our problems, restrictions, inequality, ignorance, etc…. in the Arab World. You are right to highlight the irony that a country retarded like Saudi Arabia is promoting “Democracy” in Syria, when themselves they do not even comprehend the meaning of the word.

      • Persistent

        Obviously, you do not understand islam when you cast blame on the entire faith and tarnish the religion for the ill done by the zealous and some lunatic minorities. If you are specifically targetting the arab culture, I totally agree. You look outside the ME, you will find moslem countries for whom are open and prosperous and achieved a certain degree of success.

  • Persistent

    BINGO, BANGO, BUNGO..  Just look at the messanger….This is the same saudi government and her clones that are concerned about the human rights, well being, freedom and democracy for the syrian people. Democracy will certainly flourish in Syria as it is Saudia Arabia and the gulf in general. I can not wait….

    The problem is not ISLAM, it is the CULTURE!!!!…..There are a lot of educated and successful women in the islamic world, but I must admit mostly in non arabic speaking nations.

    • Constantin7

      Persistent, the culture in the Arab countries is drawn mainly from ISLAM. Look at the status of Arts and creativity in the Arab world it is pretty much non-existent. Just look at the Lebanese muslims (who are the most educated in the Arab world) still they cannot express themselves freely because of the culture drawn of Islam, where every form of ART is HARAM !

      No my friend, ISLAM is the root of all our problems, restrictions, inequality, ignorance, etc…. in the Arab World. You are right to highlight the irony that a country retarded like Saudi Arabia is promoting “Democracy” in Syria, when themselves they do not even comprehend the meaning of the word.

      • Persistent

        Obviously, you do not understand islam when you cast blame on the entire faith and tarnish the religion for the ill done by the zealous and some lunatic minorities. If you are specifically targetting the arab culture, I totally agree. You look outside the ME, you will find moslem countries for whom are open and prosperous and achieved a certain degree of success.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NYRtmMxB5yw CrossWinds

    2 Corinthians 3:17……..
    17 For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

  • Plumbline

    2 Corinthians 3:17……..
    17 For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

  • Beauty-Full-Lebanon

    It is her choice to go back and follow some obsolete rules, , why complaining?

    • 5thDrawer

      Right. Once you escape, why return?
      “My friends are all in the same situation. What’s wrong here?”
      It’s something about one of those little books of thought, my dear. You didn’t learn that in seeing a difference between Shenandoah University and Princess Nora University?? Then where was the education?

  • Beauty-Full-Lebanon

    It is her choice to go back and follow some obsolete rules, , why complaining?

    • 5thDrawer

      Right. Once you escape, why return?
      “My friends are all in the same situation. What’s wrong here?”
      It’s something about one of those little books of thought, my dear. You didn’t learn that in seeing a difference between Shenandoah University and Princess Nora University?? Then where was the education?