Rita Henley Jensen

(WOMENSENEWS)–The women of Saudi Arabia live under the most restrictive gender apartheid. Based on my observations from a recent trip there, my guess is the Saudi women will not tolerate it for much longer.

In addition to being required to wear a black robe called an abaya and a veil to cover their hair, they cannot vote; they cannot drive; they must sit in separate sections in restaurants; they may attend only gender-specific schools; they inherit half of what their male relatives do; employers, with few exceptions, permit them to work only in gender-specific occupations in all-female workplaces.

All of which makes today, International Women’s Day, an opportune chance to talk about the remarkable women I met two weeks ago at this year’s Jeddah Economic Forum in Saudi Arabia.

When I received an invitation to join a 32-member delegation going to the forum that was organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank with offices in Washington, D.C., and New York, I jumped at the chance.

Last year at the forum, four Saudi women, including well-known business leader Lubna Olayan, had been given the main stage to speak openly about gender bias. By publicly discussing the need for economic opportunity and merit-based employment, they earned the wrath of a prominent religious leader who publicly condemned them and the forum.

What would happen this year, when the theme was "Capacity Building, Developing People for Sustainable Growth?" How would the forum deal with the female question when, just the week before, the Saudis had cast their first ballots and excluded women from voting and running for office?

Ladies’ Section Seating

About 2,000 attendees filled the Hilton’s conference center on the first day of the forum. The several hundred women who filled the "ladies" section had a separate entrance from the main hotel and a separate security screening and metal detector, staffed by men dressed in camouflage military uniforms and occasionally holding an AK-47 rifle. We were blocked off from the main section by a long, black Plexiglas wall, making us nearly invisible. (We had our own lunch area as well: a poorly air-conditioned tent in contrast to the shaded and open-air patio for male participants.)

Dressed in black abayas, with and without a veil, throughout the three days, the "ladies" may have been practically invisible, but they were highly audible, lining up to challenge the speakers and chat privately about the issues raised. Their resentment and ambitions were far from veiled.

Difficulty Hiring Women

During his presentation, Saudi Labor Minister Ghazi Al-Gosaibi claimed that his ministry was having difficulty hiring women because they wanted to work in a segregated environment and, in fact, that was why women had such high unemployment in the kingdom. (About 50 percent of Saudi women have college degrees, quite often from U.S. and British universities; 7.2 percent of women are employed.)

Up came the response from the Ladies section: "Women are restricted by government policies," a participant told him.

Gosaibi insisted that he knew women wished to be segregated because of the "letters" he received at the ministry.

"Is that what you base your policy on?" the questioner parried.

Another woman told the minister he should base his reasoning on studies.

Touting Tourism

During his moment under the spotlight, Prince Sultan bin Salman, the tourism minister, presented a video of a modern, hospitable Saudi Arabia, with plenty of Saudi men hard at work, dressed in the traditional Saudi male garb of white robes and kafiyyeh, the red-and-white headscarves.

When called upon, the first "lady" questioner congratulated him for creating a video of the "only nation on the earth without women."

Later, at a press conference, he was asked how he expected to create the 1.5 million jobs in the Saudi tourism industry when the nation’s women are, by family custom, restricted from working in an industry that would expose them to alcohol and other Western influences.

The ministry, he responded, planned to emphasize "family" tourism, which as far as I could translate it, meant that the government would only try to attract tourists who subscribed to the same strict code of gender apartheid practiced in Saudi Arabia. He did however, looked visibly uncomfortable about the whole exchange.

At the press conferences–held separately from the main event–female reporters were outnumbered roughly 2 to 1 by male colleagues and often refused to sit in the ladies section. Many asked some of the toughest questions of visiting dignitaries.

During Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai’s session with the media, a female reporter from Reuters asked if he knew where Osama bin Laden was hiding.

During his presentation to demonstrate how far his nation had come in a few short years, Karzai noted that 42 percent of the voters in his nation’s recent elections were female and that 25 percent of the parliament was reserved for women.

After the press conference, a veiled reporter with her face covered too by a black cloth, so that I could see only her eyes, approached me.

"How did they do it?" she asked insistently. "How did the Afghan women do it?"

I detailed what I recalled of the process, in which Afghan women, assisted by international activists, organized large meetings in Brussels and Kandahar, where they set an agenda for influencing the drafting of a constitution and the elections, implementing them in a strenuous grassroots campaign.

"Women’s Revolution on Course, Says Karzai," read the headline in the next day’s Saudi Gazette.

As the forum was winding up, an impromptu session began on the topic of women and the barriers to employment, including the requirement that women be driven to their jobs in this sprawling Houston-like city. (The city should build more public transportation for women, said one participant.)

One audience member suggested that more part-time jobs needed to be created so that women could balance their job and home responsibilities. A female panelist shot back that "we need to prove ourselves by working the 12-hour days. Then we can ask for such things." She added that women elsewhere in the region had not sought such accommodations.

Apparently not persuaded that women should imitate the customary approach to working life, the audience member shouted out: "We should be a leader."

I have no doubt that the feisty women of Saudi Arabia will be.

Rita Henley Jensen is the editor in chief of Women’s eNews. 

For more information:

Middle East Online–
Saudi women unseen at Jeddah Economic Forum:

Taking the Gender Apartheid Tour in Saudi Arabia: