When Sofana Dahlan wanted to study law, she had to go to Egypt to do it. The subject wasn’t offered to women at universities in her native Saudi Arabia.
Nearly 20 years later, she is an accomplished lawyer and entrepreneur who has helped launch the businesses of numerous artists, designers and other creative types.
Her career is evidence of a slow but seismic shift in the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom, which has long relegated women to the status of legal minors.
Although women still need the permission of a male relative to attend university, get married or travel abroad, some are taking on new roles in the workplace — and in the process, gaining a measure of financial independence.
Women cloaked in black, some with only their eyes showing through face veils, are working in shops and cafes, offices and boardrooms, and even some factory assembly lines.
That this fact is not widely recognized outside Saudi Arabia is a source of some irritation to women like Dahlan, who has worked hard to build her business profile.
“No matter how successful we are, no matter how much we achieve, the world still chooses to see us as oppressed,” said Dahlan, who proudly wears the body-covering abaya. “And in reality, a lot of us are not. We have limitations, but the whole world has limitations to different degrees.”
Saudis attribute the changing attitudes about women in the workplace to a number of factors, including the rising cost of living, improvements in women’s education, the influence of the Internet and social media, and the modernizing efforts of the late King Abdullah, who paid for tens of thousands of young people of both genders to study abroad each year.
“It just makes economic sense,” said Khalid Alkhudair, who founded the women’s recruitment agency Glowork after seeing his Western-educated sister struggle to find work.
Many couples, including Alkhudair and his wife, are finding that they need two incomes to afford the lifestyle they want. At the same time, companies are under pressure to hire Saudis to fill quotas demanded by the government before they can employ foreign workers to fill posts that locals are either not qualified for or consider too menial.
The so-called Saudization program, an attempt to reduce unemployment among the growing number of young Saudis entering the workforce, has opened doors to women in sectors that can accommodate the kingdom’s strict rules on gender segregation, said Steffen Hertog, an expert on labor reform at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Companies are putting in partitions to create separate work spaces for women. Some offer transportation stipends for female employees, who are not allowed to drive. A few have entire manufacturing plants staffed by women. Others are experimenting with virtual offices, allowing women to work from home.
But progress has been slow. Although women make up more than half the kingdom’s university graduates, they account for just 13% of the positions held by Saudis in the government and private sectors, according to figures reported in the local press in February.
Saudization has also created what Hertog called “fake women’s employment,” in which companies pay them a small salary and tell them to stay home. “If you look at the statistics, there has been a huge boom in Saudi women’s employment in construction, which is ridiculous,” he said. A few may hold office jobs in construction companies; none appear to be on building sites.
The government’s job creation efforts took on greater urgency during the “Arab Spring” uprisings that swept the region in 2011, a movement driven in part by the frustration of idle youth.
A new benefit was introduced that paid job seekers the equivalent of $533 a month for a year. About 1.2 million of the 1.6 million people who registered were women, according to news reports.
Saudis typically look to the government for work. For women, that usually means jobs in schools and hospitals. But there aren’t enough of those to meet the demand. So the government has been easing restrictions and sponsoring training to help women enter the private sector.
Glowork was one of the organizations tapped by the Ministry of Labor to help reduce the number of women on the unemployment rolls, receiving a commission for each new hire. Its recruiters conduct hundreds of interviews a week, matching job seekers with employers willing to hire women.
For many, it will be the first time that they interact with men outside their immediate families, and communication with their employers can be a problem.
“We have a lot of women leaving a company because the bathrooms are not clean,” Alkhudair said. The women are embarrassed to bring up the issue.
So the agency not only coaches them on how to land a job, but also offers advice on how to conduct themselves in the workplace.
Every time the agency places a woman in a job, a gong is rung and the entire office breaks out in applause. Since the agency opened its doors four years ago in an upscale tower in the capital, Riyadh, the gong has sounded thousands of times.
There has been resistance, however. When Glowork advised one of its first clients, a local supermarket chain, to hire 11 female cashiers, there was a public outcry. A prominent cleric, Youssef Ahmed, called for a boycott of the stores, which he claimed were encouraging mingling between the sexes.
“They actually had to let go of these women because of the outcry,” Alkhudair said.
It took intensive lobbying, a social media campaign and a royal decree to open the doors to women in the retail sector — starting with lingerie and cosmetics stores.
That women had been forced to make their most intimate purchases from men was a source of acute discomfort to many of them.
Although a law was passed in 2006 requiring that stores catering exclusively to women hire female attendants, it wasn’t enforced, said Reem Asaad, a financial advisor in the country’s commercial hub, Jidda.
After one particularly humiliating encounter, her patience snapped. A male clerk screamed at her for scraping a sticker off a package of underwear so she could see what style it was.
In retrospect, Asaad suspects the clerk was afraid of running afoul of the religious police, who would have objected to the depiction of a woman’s body on the packaging. But at the time, she was furious.
She went home and poured her frustration into a Facebook post calling for a boycott of lingerie shops that didn’t employ women.
Her post struck a chord. Although the campaign to allow women to drive failed to persuade critics, who saw it as an attempt to foist Western values on the country, the so-called lingerie campaign won wide support by emphasizing the desire of women to protect their modesty.
King Abdullah intervened in 2011, issuing a decree requiring the enforcement of the 2006 law.
There are now women working in shopping malls across the country, and not only in the Victoria’s Secret stores. “There are even more women behind their desks and behind closed doors running entire retail enterprises and conglomerates,” Asaad said.
Rizan Ahmed is paying her way through college by working at a makeup counter in one of Riyadh’s ritziest shopping malls, Kingdom Center. Her father didn’t like the idea at first, but she said he came around when she showed him that she could keep her grades up.
Other families aren’t so open-minded, she said. A female customer berated one of Ahmed’s colleagues for wearing a knee-length skirt to work on a women’s-only floor known as the “Women’s Kingdom.”
“It wasn’t even that short,” Ahmed said.
Once, the incident might have given her pause. But now, she says, “I think if I want to do something I love, I don’t have to care about what other people think.”
Dahlan had to wait 13 years before she could get certified as a lawyer in Saudi Arabia. So she worked as a legal consultant, helping artists and designers navigate copyright and contract disputes. That was the inspiration for her company, Tashkeil, which mentors entrepreneurs in the creative industries.
Dahlan is the first to acknowledge the advantages she had growing up in a family that supported her professional aspirations. But she said the rapid technological advances of recent years, including access to the Internet and social media, are expanding the horizons of many Saudis and giving women tools to start their own businesses.
She is now training her successor at Tashkeil and planning to go back into legal practice — this time at the head of her own firm.
“It’s important for me to finish what I started,” she said.