Saudi Arabia: Women try to 'buy' their freedom to work

Publication Date: 
May 12, 2011
Arab News
Saudi women tending to a shop.

ABHA: Saudi workingwomen have embarked on new ways to win the consent of their male legal guardians or husbands to  take a job. This is so in jobs where there are still strong taboos about women working in them.

Many Saudi workingwomen set aside a portion of their monthly income, which enables them to win the consent of their male guardians as well as to enjoy full freedom to do job, according to a report in Al-Riyadh Arabic daily.

These women, who often managed to secure a job after a long period of waiting, see their job as a basic requirement of their day-to-day life. Hence, they are wary of safeguarding it by taking all the precautionary measures. Even if the job does not improve their economic status, it contributes substantially in upgrading their social status compared to jobless women.

Critics point out that legal guardians are cashing in on this particular state of affairs facing Saudi women. These women “bribe” their guardians to secure their permission to take up a job, mainly in the media, health, and educational sectors. They see this “monetary element” as the major factor that influences guardians to allow their women to work, in addition to the opening up of Saudi society with the advancement of the information technology. Some describe this tendency among guardians as “unsuitable utilitarian bargaining,” while others say it is a “medium solution” for women to satisfy their men while reaching out to realize their goal.

Take for example the case of Fatima. She was appointed by the Ministry of Education as a teacher in Al-Baqaa in Asir province in the beginning of the current academic year. Her workplace was located in a remote area where women teachers prefer not to work. Fatima said that she found it very difficult to reach her workplace, which is far away from her place of residence in Khamis Mushayt city. “It took me at least three hours to reach the school. So I asked my jobless brother to take me to school and back for a monthly fee of SR1,500. He grabbed it as a golden opportunity to earn an income, as well as to accompany me as mahram (legal guardian). My colleagues — 10 women teachers — decided to travel together with me. This resulted in my brother earning a huge monthly income of SR15,000 in addition to my share of SR1,500. This also helped me to overcome the objection of my parents to go to work at a remote place in the company of a foreign driver,” she said.

Similar was the case with Nadia, who lives with her husband and children in Jeddah. She got appointed at a school in Mikhwa in Baha province. Nadia was not in a position to abandon her job, due to her family’s financial position and her desire to earn some income for herself. “In the beginning, my husband rejected my request to allow me to take up the job. Later he agreed on condition that I arranged any blood relative to accompany me to and from the workplace. My brother Abdullah, who did not continue his schooling after completion of intermediate level, agreed to transport me to and from Mikhwa for a monthly payment of SR1,000,” she said.

Noura, a nurse, says that she joined a nursing course after promising her father that she attended the course for the sake of obtaining a certificate, and not to start working as a nurse. But after completion of the course, she started searching for a job without informing her father. Subsequently, she managed to secure a job at a primary health center.

“I tried to convince my father about the advantages of having a job, assuring him that there was no gender mixing at the workplace. But my father’s response was disappointing. He started abusing me as if I had committed a grave offense. This situation continued until I received my first salary. When I got two months’ salary, I set aside SR2,000 for my father and SR500 for my mother,” she said, adding that this had an electrifying effect. Her father changed his attitude toward her job. “Henceforth, he has been very keen on seeing me going to my workplace regularly. He does not like me staying away from work,” Noura said, adding that it does not bother her to allocate a portion of her revenue to her parents in return for them allowing her to enjoy freedom to work. “Moreover, my father now allows me more freedom, especially for travel to attend conferences anywhere inside the Kingdom,” she said.

At a time when legal guardians try to prevent women under their custodianship from taking up jobs on the pretext of mixing with men, a number of men block their wives from going out for work on the ground that they must be always available at home to take care of them as well as to bring up their children, says Muna. “Some husbands do not like to see their wives enjoying economic liberty by earning money for themselves. I managed to allay apprehensions of my husband in this respect by lending him a helping hand through meeting a portion of household expenses and settling a part of his debts,” she said, adding that she has been keen to keep a portion of her revenue to fulfill her personal needs. “I lied to him about the exact amount of my monthly salary. I told him that my monthly salary is SR9,000, even though I was drawing a much higher amount,” she said.

Meanwhile, Muhammad Zayed Al-Almai, a prominent writer and human rights activist, is of the view that this type of behavior toward women shows the degradation of values with regard to social integration and family bonds in addition to transforming these relations into a level of “utilitarian bargaining.”

Al-Almai also sees in this something that transforms social and human rights into a commodity, selling one’s dignity to buy one’s interests without any feeling of remorse. He also underlined the need for enacting stringent regulations aimed at protecting the weaker sections, such as women and children, in addition to enlightening male members of society on their duties and responsibilities toward women.

On his part, Abdullah Al-Towairqi, a prominent citizen, said that this attitude is common not only among legal guardians of women, like parents and brothers, but also on the part of their husbands, who see their women as a tool for exploitation and even for blackmailing in certain cases. He denounced the deprivation of women’s right to earn wealth as well as her right to work, in addition to choose her family life and future course of action.

Al-Towairqi ruled out the wrong notion that it is a disgrace for a man who faces financial difficulties to be supported by his wife.

Echoing the same view, Hala Al-Dosary, a human rights activist, said a job is something that enables a woman to have financial capabilities and enjoy more freedom. “It is significant if a woman can play her role in improving the financial level of her family by supporting her husband to meet household expenses,” she said.