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Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2005

Saudi women going into business

Economic clout grows as attitudes and policies evolve


Staff writer

RIYADH -- Veiled Saudi Arabian women in black "abayas" -- the shapeless cloaks they must wear in public -- arrived at a convention hall in the Four Seasons Hotel in central Riyadh, stripping off the coverings just before they entered. Inside, Saudi and other Arab women in business suits were lined up at dozens of booths, waiting to tell them about their companies and products.

News photo
The presence of saudi woman in the business world is growing steadily despite traditional restrictions.

This all-women event was a two-day investment seminar that attracted over 700 Saudi businesswomen earlier this year. Unlike the timid and oppressed Saudi women often portrayed by the media elsewhere, many who gathered at the seminar run successful businesses and are active participants in Saudi society.

Due to the oil-rich kingdom's Islamic conservatism, combined with other traditional values, women are prohibited from driving and voting, or from sitting together with men in public unless they are relatives. Despite such restrictions, shops and businesses run by women are on the rise, and women's presence is growing slowly but steadily.

In the past few years, there has been a sea change in the government's attitude and regulations. Many women say Riyadh is now encouraging them to work.

News photo
Selwa Al-Hazzaa, head of ophthalmology at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, was named Arab Woman of the Year after speaking bareheaded on her field of expertise at Jidda Economic Forum last year.

"Things are changing gradually . . . and I own my company under my name," said businesswoman Huda al-Jeraisy, who runs a language-training and computer center for women.

In June 2004, the country lifted a ban that kept women from jobs in most fields, and allowed women to obtain commercial licenses. Before that, women could only open a business in the name of a male relative.

And on June 29 this year, the Labor Ministry issued a new directive that mandates hiring Saudi saleswomen in shops that sell women's cloths and personal items. Clerks are still nearly all men, even at shops that sell women's lingerie and cosmetics.

According to the Ladies' Branch of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce & Industry, there are already 3,400 companies registered as run by women in Riyadh, compared to 80,000 owned by men.

But the figure would be vastly greater if it included the many women who work at home in jobs such as tailoring and catering. Though official figures are not available, countless Saudi women are engaged in cottage industries.

Women's economic presence can be felt in other ways as well.

For example, about 38 percent of bank deposits are owned by women, and women own nearly 20 percent of mutual funds, according to experts.

About 53 percent of university graduates in the country are women. But unfortunately, jobs are few for any Saudis, and especially for women. The overall unemployment rate is believed to be between 15 percent and 35 percent.

"Women are new in business in Saudi Arabia," said al-Jeraisy. "Banks are hesitant to finance women and they don't easily give us loans. We are not experienced enough." She added that facilities such as nurseries must also be built to help women.

In a survey of 100 women conducted by the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA), the government agency that promotes investment in Saudi Arabia, the respondents listed 27 obstacles to starting businesses. One is that they face difficulties in applying for business licenses because all the government agencies are dominated by men. Also at the top of the list are a lack of knowledge about how to run businesses, low computer skills and a paucity of support services such as day-care centers and drivers.

"Now we are changing. We'll have opposition (within society), but it has started to change," said Afaf al-Hamdan, the director of SAGIA's Women's Investment Services Center.

Many Saudis agree that the fledgling changes in the highly conservative society are due partly to the severe international criticism the country faced after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. As the kingdom was blamed for breeding terrorists, even some conservative voices in the government and society began to stress the need for reform.

Though many Saudi women feel the government must work really hard to improve their status and working environment, they also feel awkward about the image of miserable women suffering in a male-dominated society -- an image often portrayed by foreign media, especially after Sept. 11.

"Women became a soft target by the Western media . . . because the women's issue is easy to understand for people. But it's not really true," said Hedaya Salman, a former reporter for Al Riyadh, the nation's largest daily. She now runs the Arabic-language Internet newspaper Hedayah.net.

When she was interviewed by one Japanese reporter, she was shocked at the reporter's assumptions about Saudi society, she said. "The Japanese reporter asked me, 'How many times does your husband hit you in a day?' " Salman said. "My husband never hits me. In fact, he supports my business very much."

Selwa al-Hazzaa, head of ophthalmology at King Faisal Specialist Hospital & Research Center, agreed.

"Saudi Arabia was hurt and blamed for what was not true. Just because we are Islamic, it doesn't mean we are terrorists," said al-Hazzaa. "We wear a veil on a voluntary basis. Just because we cover our face, it doesn't mean we can't think."

She is an example of active and outspoken Saudi women. She was named Arab Woman of the Year last year by the Dubai-based Arab Women Students Center, an organization that promotes Arab women's causes.

Her recognition followed an incident at Jidda Economic Forum the previous January. As participants in the forum, al-Hazzaa and Saudi businesswoman Lubna Olayan went up on the stage without a veil or head scarf and made speeches on topics in their fields of expertise. They were later denounced by Islamic clerics for mixing with men and not dressing in an appropriate manner.

Despite such criticism, she was named as one of several government representatives and is often dispatched to international conferences to speak about Saudi Arabia.

"We are strong. We don't like to go around and show ourselves, like Americans do. We do it in a very discreet way to prove ourselves," she said.

Unlike the growing female presence in the business sector, however, political participation by women remains almost nonexistent. Many women are hoping this will change in the near future.

As one of the government's reform drives, Saudis were allowed to vote, for the first time since the 1960s, in nationwide municipal elections this spring.

But the government did not allow women to vote, citing administrative reasons such as that there aren't enough female staffers to run women-only voter registration centers and that only a fraction of women have photo identity cards.

In contrast, Kuwait in May approved letting women vote in parliamentary elections for the first time in its history. Kuwait's next election is due in 2007.

"I think we should be able to vote . . . because we're part of the society," said a 21-year-old female university student from Riyadh.

But al-Hazzaa of King Faisal Specialist Hospital is willing to give the government more time.

"The election was new to the country," the eye doctor said, adding that the government will need more time before allowing women to vote.

She welcomes the government's reform drives and the increasing presence of women in society, but also warns that reform must not be pushed rapidly, as that would only trigger a conservative backlash.

"We want it to be evolution, and not revolution," she said.



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