Gulf & Middle East
Saudi working women find it hard to be 'free'
Apr 26, 2007 - 8:14:53 AM

Mecca, April 26 - Covered from head-to-toe in black robes, Asmaa usually experiences the world around her through the two slits in her black face-veil. Sometimes, she says, frowns from men even compel her to let down a see-through netting to cover her kohl-lined eyes.

Every morning, however, when the 26-year-old Saudi woman steps into her air-conditioned office, where only women are allowed, she takes off her scarf, face veil and ankle-length dress, and sits down at her computer - in jeans and a casual top, her hair loose.

Life in the close-knit society of Mecca is not easy for woman who want to do things differently: In the heart of Islamic Saudi Arabia diversity is discouraged and females can only leave the house if they're fully veiled.

In the 'women-only' section of her company, Asmaa explains the restrictions for women at work and in public in Mecca. Her office is separated and receives only female customers because 'mixing' is highly rejected in Mecca society.

Her work conditions, however, are not the only challenges that she faces as a female professional, says Asmaa, who did not want her full name to be disclosed.

Mecca, Asmaa's hometown, is the most sacred site for the world's more than one billion Muslims. The city houses the grand al-Haram mosque with the Kaaba, to which Muslim pilgrims journey and in whose direction Muslims across the world pray five times a day.

Mecca strictly abides by Saudi law and a rigid interpretation of Islam, and the government continues to impose tough rules that regulate women's education, behaviour and the level of their role and appearance in public life.

This means more rules to follow for Asmaa, who has lived in Mecca for most of her life. 'I'm an ambitious woman, and I don't like restrictions,' she says.

Like other young women in her community, the customer service representative is seeking post-graduate education and a prestigious job. She also dreams of travelling - all this in a community in which women are frowned upon if they walk the streets without male guardians, either from or designated by their families.

Girls get their education in isolated classes across most high schools and universities. However, the number of approved subjects is restricted.

Earlier this month, a Saudi college admitted female students to study engineering, decoration, embroidery and fashion design. But this was a first and only in order to fill a number of teaching and administrative openings around the kingdom.

Apart from medicine, nursing and teaching in segregated environments, women are usually discouraged from working in any other field.

Women are also banned from driving; so women like Asmaa have to take taxis to work, or be driven by their fathers or male relatives.

Before her post in Mecca, Asmaa briefly worked in Jeddah, 70 km west, as a call centre employee. This job involved talking to men on the phone, and sharing the office with male colleagues. While her parents agreed with this move, she was frowned upon by the rest of her relatives.

In Jeddah, Asmaa said, she used to wear the face veil during work hours. But even this was not enough, according to Saudi Sheikhs.

Because their tasks involved talking to men, Asmaa and her co-workers were ultimately forced to relocate when a group of Islamic scholars issued a fatwa - denouncing jobs in which women communicated with male strangers.

It was unusual for Saudis to have women deal with male clients on the phone, Asmaa admits, adding that they suffered from occasional harassment by clients who tried to flirt.

'Some male callers step out of line when they hear a woman's voice on the other end,' Asmaa says. 'But that does not mean it is haraam -.'

In Saudi Arabia, particularly Mecca, the Islamic Scholars are influential not only in jurisprudence and implementation of Islamic law in the community but also in education as well as public and religious guidance.

Originally, she felt liberated to be in the more open Jeddah community that Asmaa said she preferred over Mecca. However, she was angry when she had to leave because of the fatwas, and her company avoided confrontation with the strict Saudi rules.

'When I started working, I did not ask for a fatwa from any sheikhs,' she said. 'For me, my parent's consent is more important than fatwas.'

After the Islamic ruling, Asmaa pleaded with her superiors not to post her to a back office where her skills would not shine. And because of her talent, she was allowed to move to the sales section in Mecca. However, she says she still dreams of moving to a place where 'the teachings of Islam are not as misread'.

Despite such problems, Asmaa described her career as 'her life', adding that she would never allow herself to be forced to leave work - neither by relatives, friends nor by traditional 'marriage suitors'.

'I realize that some people say that work for women is forbidden and that a woman's place is her house,' she said. 'But this is wrong. Aisha - used to give lectures to men. People here fail to understand the meaning of this.'

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