Saudis slow to accept working women

A Saudi woman holds prayer beads as she visits the Saudi Travel and Tourism Investment Market fair in the capital of Riyadh. Women in Saudi Arabia face a host of constraints. They are banned from driving, forced to cover from head to toe in public, prohibited from mixing with men other than relatives, and prevented from traveling without written permission from their male guardian.

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KAI RYSSDAL: Jordan's King Abdullah had a quick meeting with President Bush today. It was a setup for the president's trip to the Middle East next month. He'll be in Israel as well, and in Saudi Arabia.

Less than 10 percent of the Saudi workforce is female, yet women make up more than half of that country's college graduates. Jobs that could go to women are held, instead, by men from countries like India and Pakistan. The Saudi government is trying to get its own citizens to work.

It's started hiring more women and encouraging the private sector to do the same, but Kelly McEvers reports from Riyadh, change isn't coming easily.


KELLY MCEVERS: About a year ago, a Saudi woman who works at the Ministry of Planning and Development had a meeting with her male counterparts.

SAUDI WOMAN: There was two men and there were like three of us, the ladies. We have met for I think it was only like for 20 minutes.

Sounds like a regular day at the office, but in Saudi Arabia it's a really big deal. That's because religious leaders forbid the mixing of unrelated men and women. Partitions, window coverings, different hours for men and women, all this is designed to keep the sexes apart. Now the Saudi government wants women to start filling jobs occupied by foreigners, who make up at least a quarter of the country's 24 million people. Officials say the move is still in line with religious law, because, like at this woman's government office, men and women have separate entrances.

SAUDI WOMAN: It's a separate place, but it is, it's in the same building, and if we, if we need, we can just use the telephones to talk to the males in the other departments.

Phone calls with men are fine, but meetings . . .

SAUDI WOMAN: It is very rare. I think it only happens twice.

This is the conundrum of Saudi Arabia. Women want to work, but both sexes are still reluctant to put themselves in situations where they might mix, so the government keeps trying. The Ministry of Labor recently passed a law requiring shops and stores that cater to women to actually hire women, but, says journalist Maha Akeel, store owners found excuses not to comply.

MAHA AKEEL: The businessmen objected that it was an added expense, you know, segregating the stores. You know, who's going to manage those stores? We don't have qualified women, you know. They have to be trained. By time they train them, what are they going to do with the stores?

So in the end ...

AKEEL: The ministry backed off, and said "Well, we'll just make it optional."

And so far, no stores have hired women. Instead, they're staffed by foreign men. Architect and interior designer Nadia Bakhurji is seen as a pioneer for women's rights in Saudi Arabia. She ran for local office in 2005, even though women aren't allowed on the ballot. Yet even she doesn't hire Saudi women. She says the few who are qualified in her field are still afraid of working with men.

NADIA BAKHURJI: You know, some girls just don't have the confidence to go out into the workforce.

Bakhurji says most Saudi women have never even met a man who is not their relative, so the mixing of the sexes almost always means some kind of sexual tension.

BAKHURJI: I mean, my advice to any professional woman is if the guy tries to get difficult, either he's being sexually discriminating by putting your work down because you're a woman, or if they try to get fresh, if you know what I mean, you need to, you know, not accept any nonsense.

That advice might not go very far with 23-year-old Haifa Fahad Al Ajra. She says she has no interest in working with men, because if she was sexually harassed, she says through an interpreter, she'd have no legal recourse.

HAIFA FAHAD AL AJRA INTERPRETER: She said, you will find a clear and strong punishment for that in the United States. Unlike here in Saudi Arabia, there is no clear punishment here, so we need to do this in a gradual, harmonic way."

Al Ajra says the segregation of men and women here is a product of both religion and culture. Imagine being told your whole life you need to be protected from the prying eyes of men, she says. You'd be hesitant to work with them, too.

In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I'm Kelly McEvers for Marketplace.

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