by Hanaa Almoaibed
Five years ago I wrote about the historic announcement that women in Saudi Arabia would be able to drive. In that same year, an article in the Independent called Saudi Arabia ‘one of the world’s worst places to be a woman’, and heavily criticised the UN’s choice to welcome them on the commission to promote gender equality. Apparently, a seat at the gender equality table can do a lot for the status of women in a country where they were literally kept in the backseat for decades. In the past five years, the country has promoted gender equality at an unprecedented rate and in 2020, Saudi Arabia was recognised as the top reformer globally in the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2020 Report, due to these historic and rapid reforms.
Fiscal policies that address gender equality can lead to economic development and poverty reduction. Globally, the women’s workforce participation rate is 20% lower than that of men’s, yet the IMF insists that this gap can be narrowed through investing in fiscal policies that address the key challenges that face women. The World Bank measured progress on gender through developments in transportation, workplace, marriage, parenting, entrepreneurship, retirement pension and compensation – spheres in which Saudi Arabia began its process.
While women were not legally required to get their guardians’ permission to work, it was common practice amongst employers to avoid what might be considered workplace drama. This was addressed by passing an anti-harassment law in 2018, initially making harassment a criminal offense, and later updated to allow for public naming and shaming of the harasser. And while most women still dress modestly, legal requirements that regulated choice of clothing and covering one’s hair and face were dropped.
The effects are tangible: a recent article from Harvard Business Review illustrated the way that fiscal policies related to labour and personal status laws propelled the progress forward. Labour force participation has risen 13.1 points over three years and sat at 33.6% as of Q1, 2022. 26.8% of working age women are now in the formal labour market – which has grown from 100,000 women in 2011 to 670,000 women in 2022. Some six million Saudi women over age 21 have already benefitted from these changes. Education pathways were also broadened; In 2021, 14.65% of young women went into STEM, 25.26% went into law and business fields, 7.02% specialised in health related fields.
So, what can the world do to support this change? The first step is to be more informed. A search about the status of women in Saudi Arabia online will not generate favourable results. Yet some of the most vocal critics are acknowledging the advancements. While writing this blog piece, one of the first search results that came up on guardianship was published in 2021 describing the ‘current’ guardianship laws (all repealed in 2019). A comment read: ‘Oppression of women in Saudi Arabia is going to lead to oppression of women everywhere – that men are allowed to rule with impunity’. The women in Saudi Arabia would disagree; they have argued that they now have more rights than women in parts of the industrialised world. While scepticism about progress is warranted, a complete dismissal of the progress will do nothing for the continuous advancement of women. Adopting an attitude of reparations will further women’s status, dwelling on past oppression most likely will not.
When women were given a seat at the table, they made room for their peers. While I have written about the limitations the ‘old boys club’ places on women’s advancement, progress has been made. In July of 2022 two women were elevated to key roles in government for the first time. The number of women in key leadership positions is growing rapidly. The diversity of voices any table can be divisive unless there is mutual respect for the struggles everyone is battling. This diversity is the first step toward open discussion about other challenges within the Kingdom: human rights, political engagement, sexuality, religion and beyond. These will be more productive if there is support for women’s engagement in these debates, which are not new to them. They want to use their own voices and to chart their own paths. They have been actively highlighting key areas for change and development for decades especially through the non-profit sector. The major difference is that more of them can make more impactful changes as they gain positions of power.
Five years ago, an announcement that women could drive set in motion a series of changes that have unfolded more rapidly than anyone would have imagined. Many struggle to make sense of the change; who is included, and who is left behind? Can we accept that this is happening? More social science research would be needed to further explore the evenness of change and the reach of the benefits. However, most young people coming of age do not remember the Saudi Arabia that is still referred to in outdated descriptions of the Kingdom. The new Saudi Arabia is reflected in the workplace, the street, shopping malls and cultural centres, in all corners of the Kingdom, and efforts to make sense of these changes are abundant. Just as 2022 came to an end, an exhibition titled ‘The Mountains Quiver in Anticipation’ launched in Jeddah on 23 November, highlighting the rapid changes. The work of eight Saudi artists was curated to help society make sense of the new world many young Saudis find themselves in, and the coming changes they anticipate.