Last week a sixty year old woman was arrested for driving a car in Madina. She was accompanied by a twelve year old girl and they were driving around an empty construction site to gather scrap metal. According to the traffic police she was convicted of driving without a license, the person who gave her a car will be punished and her male guardian will be called in to sign a pledge promising that he will ensure that she never drives again.
Within the same week, two lawyers, Mohammed Al Zamil and Mohammed Al Sultan won a case at the Board of Grievances, a government agency administrative court, on the recent decision to allow women to work in lingerie shops. They raised the case on behalf of a Saudi businessman. The court revoked two of the ministry of labor’s recent bylaws; the first that lingerie shops are mandated to only employ Saudi women and the second that department stores employ women in the women sections of department stores. The unnamed businessman hired the two lawyers in objection to being forced to hire Saudi women instead of foreign men. The two lawyers took up the case because they are ultra-conservatives and believe it a religious conviction and requirement that women should be removed completely from the public sphere and strict gender segregation be implemented. The Board of Grievances verdict still has a long way (and fortunately a long shot) to see actual, on the ground, implementation.
I took it upon myself to head out to a mall and actually talk to women currently working there. They told me that the case is just a ploy by businessmen because these employers do not want to hire Saudi women. Saudi women demand higher salaries and better working conditions than their migrant male counterparts. And when I asked if they would prefer for the front of the shop to be closed up completely and only women allowed in, they said that they wouldn’t feel safe because that way if anything happened inside the shop passers-by would not see and intervene. One even said who’s to prevent a man from coming in and raping me if it was all closed up in the front and secluded.
The Ministry of Labor will block all of its services to shops that do not comply with the employment of women in the selling of women’s necessities. This is without prejudice to any other penalties provided for in the system.
But what these ultra conservative lawyers really care about is point three of the new bylaws:
III. the organizational requirements within shops
The following must be taken into account in shops selling women’s
a. The employer must cover the windows of the women’s necessities shop if the place is reserved for women only and prevent men from entering it. The employer is prohibited from covering the windows if the shop if open to families.
b. The employer is prohibited from hiring male and female employees together in one shop, with the exception of stores with multiple departments; these may hire men and women employees when they are responsible for different sections. In the latter case the number of female employees must not be less than three per shift.
c. The employer must, whether the shop is a stand-alone or located within a shopping mall, ensure that a security guard or an electronic security system is provided unless there are general mall security guards. The employer is allowed to follow the traditional way of the closed-segregated system currently used in women’s salons.
d. The employer must, whether the shop is a stand-alone or located in a shopping mall, ensure that a bathroom or more, as needed, are inside the store. This is mandated unless there are public women restrooms within fifty meters of the shop inside the mall.
The ultra-conservatives took particular offence to points A and B. They don’t want to leave the business owners the option of opening the shop for male customers accompanied by their wives or daughters to enter a shop where a woman works. They were also horrified to see women working in department stores and at make-up counters where male colleagues are able to speak to them.
The lawyers based their case on a Royal decree issued by King Fahad in 2000 requiring all public and private sectors to maintain strict gender segregation regardless of the nationality of the women involved. But if we were to implement this decree fully then it would be illegal to employ male drivers for women passengers and female maids in households that have male family members. No objection here and no pending court cases in defense of the “honor” of female maids from having to work in a non segregated environment.
The ultra conservatives were thrilled when AlZamil first announced the verdict on Twitter. Then they were overwhelmed with self-righteousness when a report by the British paper Daily Mail came out under the headline Sexual harassment suffered by HALF female workforce – while 40% say they have been touched inappropriately by colleagues. They felt that the report vindicated everything they stood for. They would rather have 100% of women be discriminated against. And I bet in their heart of hearts they think that these British women, 33% of whom are reported to have considered leaving a job due to harassment, would love to have their car keys taken away from them, would love to be ordered to cover their faces, banned from main government buildings, discriminated against by the judicial system, and be at the mercy of male guardian if they want to travel, get married or even leave the house.
It’s funny that while women unemployment is in staggering numbers instead of actually offering gender segregated employment opportunities, these lawyers are obsessed with only stopping opportunities that don’t fit in with their belief system. I don’t see any of these ultra conservative lawyers and businessmen actually starting a women only factory or implementing a work from home option for potential female employees in their own offices. Nope, all they do is run around objecting in every way possible to women who are trying hard against all odds to make ends meet. In the interview AlZamil admits to being on this case since it was only a proposal six years ago. All this obsession with stopping Saudi women from working openly in malls, while it is an extremely common sight to see women in traditional Arab markets on floormats in the heat and dust selling their wares. Yet again no objection here. And that sixty year old woman gathering scrap metal to sell, no problem there either, just as long as she uses those profits to pay for a male driver.