The Changing Face of Saudi Women

Saudi Arabia is the most gender-segregated nation on Earth. Every adult female citizen is supervised by a legally recognized male guardian, such as her father or husband. Only these males can give her formal permission to apply for a passport or travel abroad.

All restaurants that serve both men and women are divided into separate eating areas. One is for “singles,” which means men. The other is for “families,” which means women, plus children and any men in their parties who are close relatives. Men and women who are not related can pretend, but the religious police might find out. Women in Saudi Arabia must wear the ankle-length garment (an abaya) and the long Arabian head scarf (a tarha) over their heads.

There are some extraordinary changes underway in Saudi Arabia. Multiple generations are debating what it means to be both modern and Saudi.

Noof is 32 and has thick brown hair and merry, almond-shaped eyes. She is the new manager of a hundred women in a lighting assembly plant. The women Noof supervises work in an area off-limits to men, but this company’s managerial offices are “mixed.” Men and women, unrelated by blood or marriage, work physically close to one another every day. They attend meetings together and stand side by side as they read the same documents.

Many women won’t even consider applying for a job that requires such mixing. Some women who might be interested are overruled by their parents or their husbands. Other women feel comfortable with male colleagues. In the past decade, tens of thousands of Saudi women have studied abroad on government-sponsored scholarship programs. When these women return to Saudi Arabia, they are often impatient to push changes forward.

The government is offering incentives for hiring Saudi women. Female supermarket cashiers are grouped away from the male cashiers. New interior walls have been built throughout department stores, separating males from the female clerks.

Source: The Changing Face of Saudi Women
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