Saudi Arabian Women Integrate Workforce In Battle For Equality

In Riyadh, the media company Rotana is shaking up Saudi society simply by being an openly gender-integrated workplace. Time magazine reports on the struggles and triumphs of working women battling against cultural norms.

The article begins by explaining Rotana's policies, with an emphasis on their liberal application of the country's mandatory dress code and women in various positions of power. The work environment is such a radical departure from the normal manner of doing business that men who apply to work at the company must be tested to see if they can handle such a dramatic shift:

The sight unnerves enough men who come looking for a job that human-resources manager Sultana al-Rowaili has developed a trick to see if a male applicant can handle working in a mixed-gender office. She arranges for a female colleague to interrupt the initial interview, and watches to see if the man loses concentration or stares too much. Sometimes even that isn't necessary. Many men are undone by the very idea of being interviewed by a woman. "They are in a state of shock to see a woman in a position of authority and to have to ask her for a job," al-Rowaili says.

The women of Rotana appear to be happy and fulfilled with their work, and Andrew Lee Butters uses their cheerful beginning as a way to discuss the changing role of women in Saudi Arabia. While women are becoming increasingly educated and have indicated a willingness to participate fully in society, they are still faced with large obstacles:

Critics outside the government say the state is still failing to take a systematic approach to dismantling gender barriers. While the government is trying to encourage women to enter the workforce, for example, there are still no clear guidelines as to what is legal and what is illegal in an office setting, according to Abdulaziz al-Gasim, a former judge who now runs his own law firm in Riyadh. "We would like to hire women," he says. "Women in the law faculties send us their CVs. But where would we put them?" Without a separate entrance for women, or gender-specific meeting rooms, firms fear they could be prosecuted. There are also still no laws to protect women from harassment at work. "There is no meaning behind female education if they can't enter the workforce," says al-Gasim.

In addition to matters of law, matters of perception also influence how much women can push for change. Sadly, it appears that many women are just fine with the status quo:

There's evidence, too, that many women don't want radical change. A government poll in 2006 - one of the few attempts to gauge women's opinions - found that 86% thought women shouldn't work in a mixed environment, and 89% agreed women shouldn't drive. Iman al-Alqeel, the editor of Hayat, a conservative magazine for girls, says most of her readers find the thought of working or studying around boys and men intimidating. "They want to be able to relax and not worry about what other people think about them," she says, though that's partly because Saudi men don't know how to behave around women. "Before you bring in something new you have to fix the old habits," she says. "If you want women to drive, send the men to driving school."

Still, the article ends on a hopeful -yet defiant - note:

"We are not a bunch of Barbie dolls," says al-Rowaili, the Rotana television executive. "All of us have faced so many challenges to get here. We are pioneers. And we are going to win."

Saudi Arabia's Small Steps for Women [Time]