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Recently, the Saudi Industrial Property Authority – or MODUN – announced it was building a number of industrial cities which will include women-only business sectors. This would allow women to work without violating strict religious laws on gender mixing.  The announcement has generated some controversy.  Some see it as an attempt to empower women, while others say it is merely a move to further segregate women in Saudi Arabia’s male-dominated society.  Senior reporter Cecily Hilleary spoke on the subject and the state of Saudi women’s rights in general with Christoph Wilcke, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division for Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. 

Hilleary:  It has been an interesting year for Saudi women.  They can now vote in municipal elections and can serve on the Shura Council.  They’ve gone to the Olympics.  We’ve seen some new job rights they’ve been given – at least in retail.  Is this progress?

Christoph Wilcke

Wilcke:  Yes and no.  I think that in the list you’ve just put out there – political rights, participation in the work force and sport – I would give a very different evaluation to all three of them.  The political rights that they were given were the most meaningless – or the least meaningful – in that serving on the Shura Council may only happen starting next year.  They will no doubt be only a minute minority in the 150-member council.  In terms of voting and being electing to municipal elections, that is first envisaged for the year 2015, and the voter participation in these elections was very small indeed, perhaps only in the single digits, in the last elections, December 2011, and these municipal councils have next to no authority.

When it comes to sports, we believe that the participation of Saudi women in the London Olympics was a huge symbolic step, but we should be mindful that nothing has happened on the ground inside Saudi Arabia to open up sports for women, and that’s where I think the promise of increasing women’s participation in the workforce holds the greatest promise for real change on the ground for women.

“[I]t is the large group of conservative religious persons inside Saudi Arabia who oppose a woman leaving the house, participating in public life, saying that she should stay at home and look after the house and family,” – Christoph Wilcke, Human Rights Watch

Women have been pushing into the workforce for a number of years with government support.  The critics here are from within the government, but it is the large group of conservative religious persons inside Saudi Arabia who oppose a woman leaving the house, participating in public life, saying that she should stay at home and look after the house and family.

Now, the litmus test of a woman in public is how gender-segregated that space is.  Of course, she must be properly clothed, i.e. veiled with modest clothing, etc.  But even walking on the street and in the mall, sort of closer contact between men and women would be avoided.  That’s what the religious police, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, is for.

A Saudi woman works in a lingerie shop at a mall in Jeddah, January 9, 2012 (Reuters).

In the workforce this is, of course, extremely difficult.  Not every little corner shop, not every small office can afford to have two floors, one for men and one for women, two elevators, a whole string of separate bathrooms, etc. So, while the government is trying to push women into or to facilitate women entering the labor force, they have been reminded by the religious powers in the country that this must only be with very strict segregation indeed.

Hilleary:  So what’s really going on, in your view?  Is it that the Saudi government is concerned about some of the same kind of unrest we’ve seen elsewhere in the Arab world and may be paying lip service to women’s rights?  Or is this an economic issue by which women’s full participation in the workforce may be a necessity for the country but it still has to work around these restrictions?

Wilcke:  I think it is significant that the only political concession by Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Arab uprisings was one to women’s rights, the political rights that you mentioned, the local municipality voting and participation in the Shura Council, but again, they are quite meaningless.  The key issue of women’s participation in the workforce is an economic issue, which has been driven by both demographics – Saudi Arabia is a young population with a huge youth bulge; every year the government and the private sector have to create thousands and thousands of jobs just to stay at the current level of employment.

“[A]nd now women who are getting as well if not better educated than men – a global trend that we are also seeing in Saudi Arabia – also want to go and work, ” – Christoph Wilcke, Human Rights Watch

Now, women traditionally did not participate in the workforce.  Over the past couple of decades, [their participation] has tripled from 5% to 15%, and now women who are getting as well if not better educated than men – a global trend that we are also seeing in Saudi Arabia – also want to go and work.  So suddenly a stay-at-home mother or wife becomes a person who is seeking a job and wanting a job.  So the unemployment numbers go up, and the social dissatisfaction goes up as well.

Hilleary:  The thing that occurs to me is, reading the statistics, some 60% of college students are women.  The number of women being educated, then thrown into simple cosmetic or retail stores to work, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be that challenging to them.  Are they getting the ‘scut’ jobs, as we’d call it?

Wilcke:  I’m not an expert on what motivates a woman to seek higher education, but I think there’s a general trend happening in Saudi Arabia where women who want to study usually have the support of their families.  It’s seen as a good thing. So let’s make sure that we mention that it’s not only the women who want to go, but it’s a societal good that is seen to be educated.

In Saudi Arabia, in the labor market, the menial jobs as well as the skilled jobs are jobs that are overwhelmingly carried out by migrant labor.  The street sweeper is a migrant worker.  The domestic worker is a migrant worker, as is the engineer and often the banker in non-national-security positions.  We can expect women to have some of the same jobs.  I wouldn’t expect them to be perhaps guards outside of a factory or something like that, but it is more difficult for women to go up a career ladder rather than at the starting position because how will she get managerial experience to make her a manager, especially a manager, also over men?

I have met some women who are managers in companies in Saudi Arabia, but I think they are quite rare.

I think women, especially those who come back from the King Abdullah Scholarship program, with most of them studying in the United States, fair numbers in other European countries, Australia, India and so on, they are looking for different positions. We hear regularly stories about women in the sciences, Saudi women, who have careers in those fields, and I don’t think they are being tapped to work in solely menial jobs.

[C]reating enclaves for women is not going to be a solution…,” – Christoph Wilcke, Human Rights Watch

 Hilleary:  What was your reaction to hearing about some of these new industrial cities which will have certain facilities set aside for women alone.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Wilcke:  Well, it’s a news item that appeared in the Saudi press and was then denied again in the Saudi press, so I’m not quite sure where we stand.  But creating enclaves for women is not going to be a solution to either the problems underlying women’s rights, which are the guardianship system and a man holds sway to decide all matters to the women under his tutelage, and the sex segregation issue.  That’s not going to solve it.  But it may be sort of an embryonic stage where making women palatable to the Saudi society and Saudi business can have such an effect.  We’ve actually seen some employer surveys that show they actually prefer to employ women because they are harder working.  They show up on time and they work harder.  But you know, there are also things like public transportation, which women need.  They would need to drive or catch a bus, both things that they cannot do in Saudi Arabia right now.

Hilleary:  So is there a tug of war going on between the government and the religious Commission for the Protection of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice?

Wilcke:  There’s been a huge tug of war going on over the past seven-eight years between liberalizing progressive forces in the country and conservative religious forces, and women’s issues are always the fulcrum of this struggle.  It can be about proper gender mixing in public, it can be about women in work, it can be guardianship, but women’s issues set off high emotions in Saudi Arabia.  It’s sort of a yardstick for Saudi Arabia’s progress in adapting to the modern times. Many Saudis are saying we have our religious teachings and they work well and we believe in them, but they have to fit into the modern world.

Listen to Christoph Wilcke’s insights on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia (9:47):

Check out Cecily Hilleary’s in depth report on Saudi women’s rights on

Cecily Hilleary

Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.


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