Monday, November 8, 2010
The Symbolism In Employing Women
By Abdul Rahman al-Rashid
This comment was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 8/11/2010
Media battles broke out in Saudi Arabia with the majority clearly in favor of allowing women to work as ‘cashiers’ in shops. It may seem strange that this simple profession is the subject of controversy, whether in terms of its approval or rejection, but this particular profession is in fact a symbolic matter. Saudi Arabia is a remarkable country, where there are two opposing trends. In the Kingdom there are millions of students, and dozens of colleges, universities, and institutes specializing in female education. The state allocates the largest budget in the developing world for female training, educating women to the highest degree. Yet at the same time, the state forbids women from working, except in limited roles. As a result, one woman had to travel for hours each morning, in order to work in a school, in a remote village.
When women were allowed to work as ‘cashiers’ in some shops, albeit under many conditions, protests erupted. People claimed the move was a break from tradition, and was thus forbidden.
The problem, at least in my view, lies with two fundamental issues: luxuries and traditional customs. Saudi Arabia’s ‘luxury’ is due to its oil reserves, and this has made some people suggest that a job is no longer a necessity, or needed. Yet this is not true, in a country with over 20 million people, where the biggest concern is employment inequality between the genders. The second issue is Saudi Arabia’s customs, which have been interpreted differently, especially with regards to dealing with the status of women. There is a problem with training women for employment, and then saying “the woman’s place is the home”.
Although it is well known across the world that the Saudi woman cannot live like most women, because she is weighed down by traditions and laws, there are also many success stories. A Saudi daily reported that in the kingdom there are 1,200 female doctors, working in different disciplines of medicine, such as dentistry and surgery. Thus there is a clear contradiction between prohibiting women from working in a simple position, which will help her support her home and family, and the investing in female education for very lucrative professions, and allowing them to be employed in such fields.
The employment of female cashiers was not intended to highlight this contradiction, as much as it was a ‘test’ for the current situation, which requires correction. Every year, tens of thousands of young women, who had been educated at home, sit idly because of these unconvincing claims, and this is no longer acceptable. The primary danger to society today is not terrorism, or an external enemy, but rather unemployment, and declining family incomes. There is no solution except a realistic re-evaluation of the situation. The door should be open to all who are qualified and able, so that they can get their share of work in a country where they are competing with around ten million foreigners, whether living legally or illegally.