Sunday, November 7, 2010
The Saudi Women Labour Issue
By Mshari Al-Zaydi
This comment was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 7/11/2010
With regards to the issue of Saudi women and work, there are facts, opinions, and interpretations. These are the facts:
The first fact is that Saudi women constitute half of the overall Saudi population. According to the latest census, the total number of Saudi nationals currently living in Saudi Arabia, out of the 27 million overall population of the Kingdom, has surpassed 18 million, or to be more accurate, 18,707,576. Out of these, 9,527,173 are male, or 50.9 percent of the population, whilst 9,180,403 are female, making up the other 49.1 percent.
Secondly, compared to overall statistics, the unemployment rate amongst women is particularly alarming. According to what Saudi writer and businessman, Fahd al-Du'ghithr, reported in the Saudi newspaper ‘al-Watan’, the latest figures revealed by the Saudi Ministry of Labour indicate that the unemployment rate among women has reached 28 percent, yet it stands at only 7 percent for men. Female unemployment is rising at a faster rate compared to male unemployment, due to the limited job opportunities available for women.
Thirdly, no one is infallible, and no opinion is sacred, no matter who expressed it. Islam was revealed as a mercy for all men. Consequently, unemployment, recruitment, and development are parts of our worldly affairs, and we all ought to be aware of them, as Prophetic Tradition has instructed us.
Fourthly, no religious clerics or leaders – even the most conservative amongst them – have issued a fatwa that entirely forbids gender mixing. For example, consider the fatwa recently issued by Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Burak, which has become notorious amongst Saudis. The Sheikh criticized ‘forbidden’ gender mixing, which thus implies that there also a form of gender mixing that is permissible.
Fifthly, any Saudi who remembers the old days, when marketplaces were widespread in cities and towns, knows that women used to sell goods in public. The former Secretary General of the Senior Council of Clerics, Sheikh Abdul Latif Aal al-Sheikh, has supported this claim, telling Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that it was permissible for female merchants to trade at that time. In a further interview with the Saudi newspaper ‘al-Jazeera’, Sheikh Abdul Latif also recalled the city of Riyadh in the past, with its vibrant marketplace, full of male and female traders trying to earn a decent living. They were buying and selling without any complications, and they would conduct their business in "Muqibera" marketplace, or any other location for that matter, with whatever capital they could raise. At the time, none of the senior clerics in Saudi Arabia protested, or prohibited such action.
Up until this day women still sell goods in open marketplaces. However, the climate of heated debate in Saudi Arabia has notably inflamed some opinions.
The sixth point is that it is hard to imagine female cashiers, who would work in large shopping complexes, being exposed to indecent gender mixing. This is simply because they are constantly seen by hundreds of people, not to mention the installed surveillance cameras. Moreover, it is important to note that the majority of women who undertake such positions do so out of their dire need, and thus would not have time for ‘indecent’ gender mixing.
These facts are not open to speculation. They are stark realities that we now place before those who have emphatically issued fatwas prohibiting Saudi women from working as mall cashiers. Shouldn't these realities be taken into account? Doesn't evidence constitute a solid basis for argument?