Saudi Women Can’t Drive To Work, But They Are Getting There In Droves

This is great news for a deeply conservative country where women need permission from male guardians to travel, attend school – and sometimes, even visit the doctor.

Saudi Women Workforce, saudi arabia news

It’s a well-documented fact that women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive, ride bikes without male guardiansgo to public libraries or even dine out on their own.

But these restrictions have not been able to stop them from getting to work in significant numbers.

The number of employed Saudi women has increased by 48 percent since 2010, according to the country's Central Department of Statistics and Information figures reported by Bloomberg. It’s more than double the rate for men.

Clad in traditional abayas, and often full-face veils, women in the ultraconservative country are taking over businesses and industries, especially the fields of education and healthcare. At universities, areas of studies have been expanded for female students who can now take courses in law and architecture.

Many credit this surge to King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who acceded to the Saudi throne following the death of his half-brother, King Abdullah. However, that might not be the case.

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The shift has been gradual, yet ground-breaking, set in motion by Abdullah, who reportedly spent billions of dollars on education for both genders since taking office in 2005. Just last year, he approved a five-year plan worth more than 80 billion riyals ($21.33 billion) to develop the country’s education sector.

Despite facing resistance from conservative clerics and princes, he opened the kingdom’s first mixed-gender university in September 2009 in hopes to bring reforms in educational opportunities for all his citizens.

In 2011, Abdullah gave women the right to vote and run for office in local elections starting in 2015. In January 2013, he made history after appointing 30 women to the Shoura Council, a previously 150-member all-male body appointed by the king to advise him on policy and legislation.  

Apart from the reforms introduced by the late monarch, other factors such as Internet and social media have also helped influence women to get jobs for more financial independence.

“I had always wanted to work and it was a priority for me to get a job when I graduated,” 23-year-old Hafsa Algead told BBC. She works as an English and Arabic translator for the Dutch Embassy in Riyadh. “I wanted to make sure I could be independent and support myself. I have seen married women…with no way of supporting themselves if they want to get divorced.”

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While the strides made during Abdullah’s reign have been great, the country still has a long way to go when it comes to women in the workplace and their rights in general.

Some 60 percent of Saudi university graduates are female; however, barely 15 percent of the entire female population is employed.

Moreover, a 2013 Thomson Reuters Foundation poll found Saudi Arabia the third-worst country to be a woman in 22 Arab states – only better than Egypt and Iraq. The country was rated poorly on women's involvement in politics, workplace, freedom of movement and property rights.

Future progress now depends on how King Salman deals with the issue during his rule. However, it’s almost too early to say anything since he has been in power for less than a year and though he has not rolled back any previous reforms, he has not introduced new ones pertaining to women’s rights.