The Changing Face of Saudi Women

Saudi Arabia is the most profoundly gender-segregated nation on Earth. Every adult female citizen lives under the supervision of a legally recognized male guardian such as her father or husband, who must grant formal permission before she can obtain a passport, complete certain legal matters, or travel abroad. All restaurants serving both men and women have divided eating areas, one for “singles,” which means men, and one for “families,” which means women, plus children and any men in their parties who are close relatives. Men and women not tied by blood or marriage can pretend they are, but risk being exposed by religious police. Women in Saudi Arabia must wear the ankle-length covering garment called an abaya and the long Arabian head scarf called a tarha over their heads.

However, there are fragile and extraordinary changes underway. Multiple generations are debating what it means to be both truly modern and truly Saudi.

Noof is 32 and has thick brown hair, caramel skin, and merry, almond-shaped eyes. She is the newly appointed 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,” as the Saudis say: men and women, unrelated by blood or marriage, are physically close to one another every day, attending meetings at the same conference table and standing side by side as they look over the same document.

Many women won’t even consider a job that requires such mixing. Some women who might, are overruled by their parents or their husbands. Other women are quite at ease with male colleagues. In the past decade, government scholarship programs have sent tens of thousands of Saudi women to study abroad, and they’re coming home, many impatient to push the pace of change.

Some retail stores have been ordered to hire female clerks, and the government is offering incentives for putting Saudi women on the payroll. The female supermarket cashiers, though, are grouped away from the male cashiers. New interior walls snake through department stores, separating male from female clerks.

Source: The Changing Face of Saudi Women
Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic SocietyCopyright © 2015-2021 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved

Back to top