Saudi women are becoming a growing force in the workplace. The Saudi government has made a concerted effort towards “Saudization” – a nation-wide program to replace an overreliance on foreign national workers with Saudi citizen workers, both male and female. In order to achieve its goal, KSA has to allow women into the workforce. There just are not enough men to replace all the female foreign workers. Saudi men also are unwilling to perform the tasks that were performed by female foreign workers. Since the beginning of this program, the number of Saudi women working in the Saudi private sector has increased from 55,000 in 2010 to 454,000 by the end of 2015. That number has continued to grow. Saudi’s Vision 2030 for economic growth “stressed that Saudi women were a “great asset” and the Vision will strive to “develop their talents, invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy.”(Varshney, 2019)
Saudi Arabian women have made great strides toward achieving true equality with their male counterparts. But there is a great deal of inequalities that still exist for them. There will need to be more legal and legislative reforms to protect them from potential backlash from the more traditional sectors of their society who will view the women’s rights movement as blasphemous to Islam and a challenge to their traditional patriarchal social structure.
The Constitution of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, commonly referred to as the Basic Law, was issued by royal decree and has only one line in it that addresses human rights. Article 26 [Human Rights] – The state protects human rights in accordance with the Islamic Shari’ah.(Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 1992)The only pronouns used in the document are masculine and the Basic Law continues a tradition of discrimination against Saudi women. It is also important to note that the Basic Law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination against women. Since the adoption of this constitution, several royal decrees have been issued that have expanded upon it.
The Saudi government established the National Society for Human Rights in 2004. The Society’s mission is “the stated objectives of protecting and defending human rights, in accordance with Islamic law, the Basic Law, and international conventions and covenants “which do not contradict Islamic laws.” (Musawah, 2018)In 2005, this advancement was followed up by the establishment of the 26-member National Human Rights Commission whose mission is to “protect and enhance human rights according to international standards for human rights in all aspects, and to promote public awareness thereof and participate in ensuring implementation of the same in light of the provisions of Shari’ah.”(Musawah, 2018)Both of these organizations represent an important step forward, but they operate under the auspices of the Saudi Monarchy and operate in consultative capacities. They may make recommendations for legal or policy changes. But neither organization has to the power to establish policy directives.
Since the Basic Law and the two Saudi Human Rights organizations state they are based on Shari’ah law, what exactly does Islamic texts have to say about the question of equality or subjugation of women in Islamic society? The Qur’an and Islamic texts, similar to the Christian Bible and the Jewish Torah, offer two contradictory views of women. Under the first pervading view, the Prophet Mohammud is identified as the “defender of women’s dignity and opened Mosques to women on an equal footing with men.” It is also critical to note “that the Qur’an itself does not assign women a subordinate position.”(Offenhauer, 2005)Shari’ah law is supposed to be based on the egalitarian concepts of equality, piety, and justice. Under the second – and more wide-spread view, Shari’ah law is used as the basis to subjugate women. This interpretation draws heavily on the prevailing pre-Islamic societies which adopted “Qur’anic interpretations and Islamic legal discourse mirror the world views and interests of specific groupings of socially powerful men” based on a long history of misogyny that “stresses the domination of interpretation by male elites.” (Offenhauer, 2005)The reality for Saudi women is the judicial system heavily favors men because of the dictates of Shari’ah law.
Traditional Saudi patriarchal society is slowly and steadily giving way to the dictates of modern society. Saudi women are demanding change and their equal place in politics, the workforce, and society in general. Saudi’s oil-based “rentier” economy, like much of the Arab Gulf States, is facing downward pressure from increased production in the US, and renewable energy policies which is lessening the demand for oil in the long-term.(Power, 2012) This grim economic reality has forced the Saudi government to introduce reforms to address the long-term viability of the Saudi economy. Since the discovery of oil, the Saudi government has implemented a series of five-year plans to capitalize on the extraction and refinement of this commodity. In the 2000-2005 five-year plan, the Saudis introduced Nitaqat or Saudization policy. Previous economic plans relied heavily on the use of foreign-born workers in all sectors: oil, medicine, education, retail, etc. Under Saudization, the work force will transition from mostly foreign-born to mostly native-born workers. The new Saudi work force demands skilled workers and following decades of education reform “more than half of all state school and university graduates are female.” (Al-Khuzaim, 2003)The only way to achieve the goals set out under Labor Law reforms as part of Saudization, Saudi women must be given the freedom to participate fully in the workforce as equals to their male counterparts.
According to Ms. Rajkhan, “the status of women in the Kingdom is going to change due to the frequent variations in demographic and economic necessities within the Kingdom.” (Rajkhan, 2014)These changes are already visible. Women have been on the Saudi Consultative council since 2013. By early 2014, they achieved three major reforms: Domestic abuse was criminalized – punishable by prison time and a 50,000 riyal fine; Granting law degrees to women – Bayan Alzahran is the country’s first female lawyer to be granted an official license from the Ministry of Justice. She also has opened her own law firm; Petitioned the government to end the driving ban – the driving was a major obstacle to women fully participating in society. (Rajkhan, 2014)The driving ban was ended in the fall of 2018. The current Saudi Labor law grants:
•Employers must provide female employees with their own space in the workplace that is segregated from men.
•Women are entitled to fully paid maternity leave for a period of 10 weeks.
•There are various maternity-related rights afforded to female employees on issues such as leave to attend to sick babies or babies with special needs; time off for nursing babies for a period of up to 24 months; and the right not to be dismissed while on maternity leave or as a result of sickness absence arising from childbirth.
•A Muslim female worker whose husband passes away will be entitled to fully paid leave for a minimum period of four months and 10 days (in accordance with Shari’ah law).
There is still a lot of room for improvement as the law does restrict women from certain work fields, but it includes some worker benefits that U.S. women are still fighting to attain. (Khan, 2018). Despite that, the only way for Saudi progress to continue is for the international community to recognize the achievements already made. Works like this a just a small beginning step.