Saudi Arabia’s Segregation Rules
Segregation rules play an equally important role in leading to gender inequality in employment. Since Saudi Arabia’s segregation rules require different entrances and rooms for men and women, women are highly unlikely to get hired at workplaces that lack such infrastructure, which are normally small and medium sized businesses. Since mixing with men is a crime, some women may give up their employment opportunity to avoid such possibility. In addition, the Saudi government has also restricted women’s access to employment by making a list of professions which women are prohibited from undertaking, including construction, manufacturing and energy industries.
Besides the discriminatory policies, traditional gender roles assigned to women as well as are also both responsible for promoting and maintaining the status quo of gender imbalance in workforce. The problem of gender inequality in Saudi Arabia has its deep roots in its definition of gender equality. In Saudi Arabia, gender equality exists only in the quantity of their obligations, but not in their quality. Religious conservatives have constantly used Islam to justify gender inequality by saying that the gender roles are assigned by God. Explicit messages from the government and religious leaders are sent to reinforce gender stereotypes. Today, many Saudi women still face pressure to meet the social expectations of their duties for the household, while seeking employment as working is regarded by the society in general as against the norms. In addition, gender discrimination serves as a factor that discourages women from entering the workforce.
While the combination of policies and the socialization of cultural and religious norms has contributed to the gender gaps in employment, the Saudi government has taken measures to promote female employment. In fact, the gender segregation policy that has generally made the women’s access to employment difficult helps to lead to the opening up of certain professional posts for women. A 2005 policy prohibits men from working in lingerie and require the employment of women, because this helps to prevent gender mixing in these shops. A 2011 policy extends the implementation to other shops whose main customers are women. While the guardianship system requires women to obtain a permission to pursue their professional careers, the government has changed its policy in 2018 to allow women to start a new business without the consent of a male guardian. A major and perhaps the most symbolically significant step taken by the Saudi government in promoting female employment is its removal of ban on women driving as barriers to gender equality in employment. Since June 2018, women are able to commute to work and conduct work-related travels independently. The removal of this impediment is an important step to help bring more women into the workforce. The Saudi government has also taken important steps to make work environment more friendly to women. New initiatives announced in January 2019 include measures to make women feel safe at work by employing female security personnel and to guarantee women equal pay. While the government does not have plans to change the segregation rules that are major impediment to female employment, it has found new measures to adapt professional practices to segregation laws. One of the initiatives announced in 2019 aims to ensure that when it comes to mixing gender at the workplace there are always two or more women in the presence of a male colleague. It is evident that the Saudi government has attempted to make it easier for Saudi women to join the workforce while respecting the religious and cultural norms and regulations.
Increase in female employment is an essential part of Saudi government’s economic policies and the Vision 2030 project that aims to shift away from oil-oriented economy. One of the most recent Five-Year Development Plan emphasizes women’s participation in the economy and had few initiatives that promote female participation in the labor market, such as campaigns to increase female employment in both public and private sector. Women could also play an increasingly important role in the implementation of the government’s Saudization policy, which seeks to increase the number of Saudi national in enterprises by imposing quotas. As part of the Saudization, the government has supported the entry into careers they deem to be appropriate for women, such as banquet-hall employee or tailor. The Vision 2030, the ambitious political and economic plan presented by the Crown Prince bin Salman, reflects Saudi government’s changing vision for women’s role in the Saudi economy that it aims to gradually transform. The Vision 2030 aims to increase female participation in the labor force from 22% to 30% through various initiatives. One of the initiative aims to create 140,000 jobs for women by encouraging them to telework. A major breakthrough is that women are allowed to join the arm forces.
Although some progress has been made to improve gender equality in employment, the the measures taken by the Saudi government are far from enough. The majority of the initiatives that aim to increase female participation in the labor market concern only minor additions of female professionals in public sector. For example, the Ministry of Justice puts forth a plan to recruit 300 female researchers. The movement for women’s rights in fact manifests the long-standing conflict between the conservative and liberal religious and political forces of Saudi Arabia. Female employment presents a challenge to traditional arrangement of the society and disrupts the social order that the conservatives attempt to preserve in the modern era, because the increasing women participation in labor force not only gives women financial and psychological independence from men but also prevent them from fulfilling household duties. As long as conservative politico-religious group such as the Wahhabi establishment stay influential in the Saudi society, the progress for women’s rights will remain slow.
In 2011, Saudi Arabia signed a U.N. convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which forbids its countries from promulgating legislations that discriminate against women. With the ratification of this convention, Saudi government is obliged to end the segregation rules and the guardianship system. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia made it clear that it would prioritize Islamic law over the terms of the Convention when the two contradict one another. Saudi Arabia’s special clause makes it difficult for the Kingdom to move forward to eliminate gender inequality because it represents the Kingdom’s reluctance to abolish the legal framework that helps to reinforce restrictions on women participation in labor market.
Although the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has attempted to remove some barriers of women participation in the labor market and made policies that support female employment, guardianship system, segregation laws as well as restrictions to certain professions for women within the legal framework must be removed for Saudi Arabia in order to make progress on gender equality in employment. Other policies could be implemented to improve the gender equality in employment. Since the rural-urban divide with regard to literacy rates and job opportunities is evident, the Saudi government must establish vocational training programs to empower women in the rural area. The gradual liberalization in women’s rights show the Saudi government’s awareness of gender inequality, but gender equality in employment cannot be improved without a cultural change in the Saudi society. Compare to swift changes in policies, a change in mentality will be gradual and over a long period of time given the ingrained role of Islam in the Saudi society. This will require efforts by all levels of the society. Some might argue that given the contradictions between gender stereotypes advocated by the religion and the gender identity working requires, it is impossible to move towards gender equality in employment without undermining the religion’s role in Saudi society. I see the situation through a more optimistic lens. Women could enter the labor force while fulfilling their duty in the household as long as they find a work-home balance. This will require the government’s provision of services to support women, such as day-care services. All in all, in terms of gender equality in employment, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go.
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