Things are changing for women in Saudi Arabia — but they still face separate workplaces

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Time: March 22, 2018

If a business wants to hire women, “maybe they have their own special access, special environment, a special room, so it’s up to the organization,” he said. But he said such segregation “is not necessary.”

In a country where women need permission from men to marry, obtain a passport and travel abroad, the conversation around women in the workplace marks a new, albeit incremental step toward the Middle Eastern country’s slow march toward more freedom for women.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has appointed women to leadership positions at government ministries, promised to allow women to drive later this year, curtailed the power of the religious police who enforced women’s behavior, and announced an end to unauthorized male guardianship requirements that date to the country’s tribal rules from a century ago.

Yet he admits there’s more to be done.

Women in Saudi Arabia are celebrating a new found right this International Women’s Day…jogging in the streets. Emily Wither went running with them in Jeddah. Newslook

“Today, Saudi women still have not received their full rights,” the crown prince told CBS’ 60 Minutes on March 18. “These are rights stipulated in Islam that they still don’t have. We have come a very long way and have a short way to go.”

At least one human rights group is skeptical of the prince’s promises as many have not come to fruition.

Despite a 2017 decree to end “unofficial” male guardianship restrictions, the requirement remains intact, according to Human Rights Watch. Adult women must obtain permission from a husband, father, brother, or son to travel, to marry or be released from prison. Workplaces, schools and hospitals often require a guardian’s consent for a woman to obtain a job, education or health care.

Sarah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch, said while “signals by the crown prince are welcome” the changes promised haven’t been made.

“All this is happening in the shadow of severe repression,” Whitson said.

Government officials prevented mixed gatherings of men and women in public and private settings, according to the State Department’s 2016 human rights report, which came out a year ago.

During 2016, the most senior position held by a woman in government was vice president for women’s affairs of the General Sports Authority. And according to the National Transformation Program, 39.8% of government employees (excluding the military) were women, while women occupied 1.27% of top government positions, the State Department report said.

“Some companies say they don’t hire women because they don’t have the facilities to provide segregated workplaces,” Whitson said. Saudi Arabia has vowed to address gender segregation in government workplaces, she said.

Whitson said there are many reports of women still in prison for disobeying their male guardians. “We have to be very careful about not letting them get the benefit of positive PR for things they haven’t done,” she said.

That system can be traced to “social habits and tribal thinking that had taken over even the religious laws and regulation,” Qasabi said.

“But the good news,” he said, is that 81% of Saudi Arabia’s population is under the age of 45. Saudi youth are technology savvy and want change.

He listed several milestones:

Many public workplaces, including shopping centers and hospitals, allow men and women to mix.

Saudi Arabia, with a population of 28.5 million, is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. But that is expected to change in June, and now driving schools are preparing to train new drivers, Qasabi said.

He ticked off senior positions now held by women:

  • The chief of the Riyadh’s Tadawul stock exchange, Sarah Al-Suhaimi.
  • The chief of executive of Samba Financial Group (Saudi American Bank) Rania Nashar was named Monday as the first woman to lead a Saudi commercial bank.
  • Deputy Labor Minister Tamadur bint Youssef al-Ramah, the first woman to hold that post, appointed in February.
  • And Managing Director for Health Care & Life Sciences Sector at SAGIA, Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, Dr. Basmah Saleh AlBuhairan.

The government has also opened up mining, culture, entertainment, housing, health and tourism to women workers , Qasabi said.

This article was first published in USA Today

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