RIYADH, March 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In Saudi Arabia, a group of women are preparing an unusual event to mark International Women’s Day - a campaign to highlight the changing role and economic potential of women in the deeply conservative Islamic kingdom.
Saudi Arabia is well known as the world’s most gender-segregated nation, where women live under the supervision of a male guardian, cannot drive, and in public must wear head-to-toe black garments.
But since 2011 when the late King Abdullah declared women could join the government advisory Shura Council, the situation for women has started to change in line with moves to diversify the economy, get more women working, and cut reliance on oil.
Women can now work in certain retail and hospitality jobs and were allowed to compete in the Olympics for the first time in 2012. Last year a new women’s section was set up at the sports authority and this year the Saudi Stock Exchange appointed its first female chair, Sarah al-Suhaimi.
In light of the changes, Alwaleed Philanthropies, a charity aiming to help empower women, is running a conference on March 11, creating a website, and planning other initiatives under the banner “Saudi Women Can” to promote women’s evolving role.
“It is the right time ... we are more aware of the importance of women’s participation in jobs, in different sectors,” Princess Lamia bint Majed Al Saud, secretary general of Alwaleed Philanthropies, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Women have achieved a lot in our country and we are very proud of this, achievements the outside community does not know about. Like any other country we have obstacles, we acknowledge that ... but we are doing our best to make it better.”
While changes are emerging, many are impatient to speed up the pace of reforms which are promoted as important for the economy rather than emancipation, with proponents wary of pushback from the country’s hardline religious establishment.
Saudi Arabia is ranked 141 out of 144 countries in the Global Gender Gap 2016, an annual report by the World Economic Forum which measures how women fare in areas such as economic and political participation, health, and education.
Critics say the guardianship policy is the root of most the problems as women need approval from a man to travel, study and get some health treatments. A state policy of gender segregation between unrelated men and women is rigorously enforced.
But Salma Al Rashid, chief programme officer at the Al Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women, said there had been significant change in the past 18 months in line with economic shifts.
The government’s Vision 2030 released last April was deemed encouraging by committing to develop women’s talents to enable them to play a greater role in the economy with a target to lift women in the workforce to 30 percent by 2030 from 22 percent.
Last year prominent Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal called for an end to the driving ban as an economic necessity so women can get to work as many cannot afford to pay drivers.
“Things are changing so fast, little things here and there ... but there is still a lot of work to do on cultural attitudes and at the policy level,” said Rashid.
“If women are just at home it’s a cost to the family and to the country so a big part of this is an economic drive but it is also down to globalisation (via both travel and social media).”
While the changes are welcomed by many, experts cautioned that optimism should be tempered.
Peter Salisbury, senior research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at think-tank Chatham House, said the changes and more open discussions were mainly benefiting one group, the educated elite, many of whom spent time abroad.
But he said the moderately educated, lower middle class families were the ones feeling the pinch of women not working.
The biggest threat to women’s progress? Men, he said.
"You could get to a situation where you get a backlash from less well educated, less able men, who feel entitled to a job and who resort to a claim on societal tradition and join with the religious establishment to block women's progress," he said. (Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)