I’ve just returned from my fourth visit to Saudi Arabia and with each visit find myself more impressed by the women I meet. At first glance, the female population of Saudi Arabia seems inaccessible — robed and veiled in black, they seem like graceful black clouds floating by you everywhere you go. But when I have been privileged to enter those spaces where women can remove their veils, I find myself in the company of extraordinary talent — engineers, medical doctors, nuclear physicists. These women are innovators and entrepreneurs developing conversational robots, introducing new mathematical formulae, managing dental clinics. I am equally impressed by the students I’ve met, like the young woman who had started an undergraduate computer club to provide female students with more opportunities to explore technology creatively and collaboratively since there were only limited course offerings in this field for girls. Women may not be able to drive a car in public in Riyadh but this is somewhat symbolic—or perhaps appeasement directed towards conservative constituencies—while they make significant advances in other ways.
As a woman from the US and a product of the feminist movement of the 1970s, I do find the public constraints on women daunting, but these do not eclipse the increasingly influential role that Saudi women are playing in higher education and the society at large. From 2009 to 2012, the number of women in the workforce increased by 28% to a total of 647,000. Still, a Middle East analyst quoted in the Bloomberg press affirms that educated women remain an underutilized resource that the Saudi economy cannot afford to overlook. There are still many challenges ahead for female university graduates entering the job market. New NGOs such as the Al Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women are helping women learn how to approach job interviews with confidence since this is a relatively new dynamic for both women and male employers. Additionally, it is difficult to create work environments that function for everyone since working together in close proximity may be uncomfortable for some men and some women. Work environments now fall into different categories — segregated, semi-segregated and unsegregated relaxed (where men and women work side by side)—making different kinds of accommodation to an increasingly mixed gender work force.
The participation of women in higher education is particularly striking if one considers that the first women’s colleges were established as recently as 1970. According to UNESCO data, the gross enrollment ratio (percentage of the traditional age cohort graduating from secondary school that continues on to postsecondary study) has increased from slightly more than 25% in 2000 to more than 52% in 2012. Women now represent more than half of the university enrollment. Interestingly, and again according to UNESCO data, women represent more than half of the enrollment in science fields although a very small percentage of the enrollment in engineering. Improved participation and achievement is evident and likely to continue. The King Abdullah scholarship program that supports upwards of 100,000 students abroad reserves at least one-third of the scholarships for women. As a result, there is a growing number of women with PhDs earned abroad, returning home to educate more women — the trend seems unstoppable.
Of course some of the Saudi women I meet are impatient for change to take place more quickly but many more are at peace with their culture, their talent, and their ambitions. Those Saudi customs that stand out for foreigners are familiar traditions to Saudis and hence, less jarring to most Saudi women. We need to remind ourselves not to judge other cultures by the measures we use in our own. Where Saudi women desire change, they seem to be slowly achieving it.
The momentum is clear. More women are participating in education at all levels; more women are graduating from university; and more highly-skilled women are entering the job market.
Change will continue, but at a pace that Saudi society can support. Perhaps what has impressed me most is the passion and commitment that the Saudi women I’ve met share. It is a reminder that our progress and achievements are at greatest risk when we take them for granted, much as we do in the US where women’s rights are slowly eroding in healthcare, compensation, protection from violence, etc. Saudi women take nothing for granted and herein perhaps, is the greatest cause for optimism.