In Saudi Arabia, women are severely restricted in all public activities and are treated as the wards of their male relatives. The country’s restrictions on women have drawn the condemnation of rights groups for many years. Recently, dozens of women drew headlines by defying a ban on driving. However, there has been a deep, if gradual, shift in Saudi society as more women begin to work outside of the home.
Princess Reema Bint Bandar al-Saud runs the Harvey Nichols department store in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She made the decision to hire women as sales clerks, a touchy area in this conservative country. Several dozen female clerks, all cloaked in black with their hair covered, can typically be found throughout the store. With only eyes peering through slits in face veils in some cases, they arrange dresses, sell cosmetics and swipe credit cards.
Pioneers in this country try to shift social conventions while also aiding the country’s long-term economic health. Businesspeople often face blowback in this intensely religious and conservative kingdom when making even small changes to the way that things are typically done. Despite her royal credentials, the princess has been chastised by the bearded religious police as well as frequent shoppers unhappy with the changes that she has made.
Many employers say they prefer hiring Saudi women to Saudi men. A grocery store manager with branches throughout the kingdom said, “We are promoting recruitment of Saudi women because they have a low level of attrition, a better attention to detail, a willingness to perform and productivity about twice that of Saudi men.” To accommodate their female workers, some employers have added separate break rooms and office areas for the women to use and installed partitions and cameras to prevent unwelcome mingling.
Being able to work has broadened the women’s range of experience, with some helping to run organizations and earning a degree of economic independence. Efforts to have more women working in Saudi Arabia has been promoted by the Ministry of Labor as reducing unemployment and the country’s dependence on foreign workers, but strict social codes are holding back progress. Currently, bout 15 percent of Saudi women work, a minuscule percentage by world standards.