A Look at Working Women in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s lowest rates of female participation in the labor force. It was a mere eighteen per cent in 2011, according to the World Bank. Image by Kate Brooks. Saudi Arabia, 2013.

In Saudi Arabia, there have long been a group of elite women who have been able to work in specific jobs — as doctors or teachers. But retail was closed off to them, until a 2011 decree from King Abdullah, allowing women to work in lingerie shops.

Pulitzer Center grantee Katherine Zoepf visited Saudi Arabia to understand what it means to have women in the Saudi workforce. It’s the subject of her recent article in The New Yorker, “Shopgirls: The Art Of Selling Lingerie.”

She joins Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti to discuss what she learned.



It's HERE AND NOW. Can a job be a form of social liberation? That's the tantalizing question at the heart of a recent story from Katherine Zoepf in The New Yorker magazine. Zoepf, a fellow at the New America Foundation, writes about what's changed for women in Saudi Arabia more than two years after King Abdullah issued a decree allowing women to work in lingerie and later retail stores.

Now, many elite and highly educated Saudi women were already working in the kingdom as teachers and doctors, but overall the country has one of the lowest rates of working women in the world. And Zoepf says working life is quite a bit different from what many Saudi women had before at home.

She introduces us in particular to two young women, Nermin and her sister Ruby, who wore pink-trimmed platform sneakers just visible under the hem of her abaya. Nermin was one of the first women to work at Nayomi, a lingerie shop in Riyadh. And she started working there not long after a death in her family.

And Katherine, you describe the store so beautifully, with women in black abayas and niqabs, only their eyes visible and, in your words, black-cloaked figures moving against a backdrop of innumerable shades of pink. But how did the job actually change Nermin?

KATHERINE ZOEPF: The job at Nayomi and really just the simple tasks, opening the store in the morning, setting up the posters, arranging stock, she took a lot of satisfaction in that, and she felt that it have given her something that gave structure to her days. It gave her a social life outside the home that she hadn't had before. I was just very struck by how important she felt this job had been for her.

CHAKRABARTI: And so some of these workplaces in Saudi Arabia, I guess they had to be changed even physically when women entered the working world. To someone who's never been, describe what they look like.

ZOEPF: Yes, the stores that have both male and female employees are required to have partitions at least five feet high that female employees can duck behind so they don't accidentally come into contact with male co-workers. And sometimes it looked like the stores kind of were giant mazes around the - there were giant mazes around these departments that employed women. It was really very bizarre-looking.

CHAKRABARTI: And Katherine, this gives us a glimpse into what daily life is like in Saudi Arabia. I mean, it's one of the world's most patriarchal societies. And in your article you also write about the religious police or the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, as it's called, or Haya, as it's known in Saudi Arabia. They patrol and enforce strict rules for how men and women can and should interact.

And in fact you had an encounter with the religious police at a Krispy Kreme in Riyadh.

ZOEPF: That's right, yes. I was with a photographer that The New Yorker had sent along with me and the translator that we'd been working with, and we'd stopped to get Krispy Kremes and coffee for breakfast. And we were sitting in the section of the food court at the mall where women and their escorts sit, separated from men.

And we were accosted by a pair of religious policemen who wanted to know what we were doing and actually took our translator away and forced him to sign a confession.

CHAKRABARTI: But he didn't seem so perturbed by it because things like that had happened to him before. It's just interesting to me, and I don't want to spend too, too much time on this, but you took your 2-month-old son along, and having a baby with you made some of these interactions a lot easier because it actually brought less attention to you.

ZOEPF: Funny, actually. A couple of Saudi friends suggested to me that I start taking my son, my 2-month-old, along with me when I was reporting in public. And it - sure enough it did really seem to ease things a little bit. A woman with a baby isn't really suspect in the same way. And the Haya just walked on.

CHAKRABARTI: Let's talk a little bit more about the women that you met who are working in these retail businesses now because one thing that seemed to be common between all of them is that they represent a major shift in the lives of a lot of Saudi women, that they used to have this extended network of female family members that they could rely on.

But in urbanized environment, that's been sort of shrunk down.

ZOEPF: Well, this was something that was first mentioned to me by a historian of urbanism in Saudi Arabia, Pascal Menoret, who's a professor at NYU. And Pascal put this in the context of the movement of Saudis in general away from villages and tight-knit extended families to these sprawling cities. And women are still confined to the family sphere. But the family sphere has shrunk. So many Saudi women have much more limited social lives than their grandmothers would have.

CHAKRABARTI: And that seems to be perhaps part of something else that some of the women told you, that they experienced isolation and depression before they started working, particularly a 38-year-old named Alanud(ph) who you talked to.

ZOEPF: Yes, she - a number of the women that I interviewed had married very young, even in their early teens, and Alanud was one of these women. And she just described feeling very depressed as her daughters grew older and she really lacked something to do with her life.

And her family initially opposed the idea of her working, but she spent over a year begging them to be allowed to apply for a job in retail, and eventually they conceded. And she felt that it had transformed her life.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, in reading through your article, there's just so many women who seem to describe work as maybe too far to go to say as a form of liberation but that it helped, you know, reconnect them with a social network. It gave them greater sort of social power within their families.

I mean, you talk about how some women who were divorced and cut off from their families, by virtue of working were able to reconnect with their children.

ZOEPF: Yes, this was - I mean, the women told me that just by being in contact with women outside their families, they had been able to share ideas. Divorced women told me that they had come into contact with other divorced women and realized that divorced women actually did have the right to see their children.

One woman told me that she had threatened her ex-husband's family with court if they didn't allow her to see her children, and because she was earning money, they knew she could follow through on that. And they began allowing her to see her kids again.

And one woman told me, oh yes, my husband now feels that I could leave him if I wanted to now that I have money of my own, and so he's kinder now.

CHAKRABARTI: On the other hand, it is tempting to sort of put a framework or a narrative of female empowerment in Saudi Arabia through work. But I wonder if that's really sort of a Western framework, a Western narrative that we're imposing on Saudi society. I mean, is that how they see it there, or is it something completely different, these women now who are working in retail across the country there?

ZOEPF: There's a lot of dispute about that. I mean, some of the saleswomen I spoke to did see this as a kind of empowerment beyond, you know, beyond simple financial empowerment. They said that they had become more interested in the right to drive, for example, or in an end to the guardianship system.

But other women felt that working wasn't really going to change things. I spoke to even some Saudi feminists who felt that until there were major structural changes in Saudi society, tens of thousands of women working wasn't really going to have an effect. So I think it's really an open question now, and it's being very actively debated.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Katherine Zoepf is a fellow at the New America Foundation. Her article "Shop Girls," about women working in retail in Saudi Arabia, appeared in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Katherine, thank you so much. It was a pleasure to speak with you.

ZOEPF: Thank you so much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.