Saudi Women Are Getting Down to Business

A surge in female employment is changing social norms and shaking up marriages in this conservative kingdom.


JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Zakia Attar strides through the racks of colorful abayas, running her hands along the fabric. She checks that the garments are perfectly arranged to attract customers and then proudly introduces her salesclerk, a fellow Saudi woman. Behind the carefully arranged shelves and the cash register in a small back office, Attar’s husband, Sulaiman Magboul, takes inventory and tallies up daily sales. A banker by profession, Magboul runs the financial side of Zakia Attar Designs.

Attar is a designer — one of a growing crop of young Saudi women seeking to add more flare to the traditional modest wear required of females here. She is no activist; Attar insists that women dress in a way that conceals their figures and says she enjoys a great deal about Saudi Arabia’s traditional gender roles. Nonetheless, her story shows how women in the workplace are changing the very social foundation of Saudi Arabia. Since she started her clothing line, it has become much more than just a source of income. Attar is also a wife and mother of four, and it’s those roles that have seen the biggest transformation since her boutique opened in 2012.

“This business is now my relationship with my husband,” Attar says. “He started respecting me: ‘My wife has value, she has talent, she is making me money.…’ Before it was just ‘my wife, the caregiver, the cook.’ Now it’s ‘my wife, my partner.’”

Not long ago, Attar’s story would have seemed impossible in Saudi Arabia. This is a country, after all, where until recently women had access to only a few professions, such as nursing and teaching. A series of reforms begun under former King Abdullah has changed all that, allowing females to take up a range of jobs, from sales to services to administration. As more and more professions have opened to women, female entrepreneurs and businesswomen like Attar have seized every opportunity, no matter how small. Today, women can be found running shops and businesses, tech firms and start-ups. The number of female employees has grown 48 percent since just 2010, and the high female unemployment rate, at 33 percent, paradoxically shows that record numbers of Saudi women are trying to get out of the house and into the workplace.

These changes are turning Saudi Arabia’s traditional social structure on its head. Women legally remain dependents here: They require permission of a male guardian — a father, husband, or son — to travel and study. They can’t drive. But as they have started working, they have gained a newfound independence from the simple fact of having an income. It’s such financial power that could prove a game-changer for women’s rights in the kingdom.

The growing presence of working women is already reshaping the tradition of the Saudi marriage contract, a document drawn up by families ahead of an engagement. Marrying a working girl was once taboo; it showed her family didn’t have enough money to care for her. “For my husband, he had the idea that women should be at home,” says Fedhah Al Dosary, a mother of two and a computer programmer by trade who recently persuaded her husband and conservative in-laws to let her work.

Fearful of rocking the boat, she waited several years into her marriage to ask whether she could take on a job. “[My husband] thought, ‘She doesn’t need to work. I have a good job, so she doesn’t need to work.’”

Those views are changing, and today, many grooms’ families seek out bachelorettes with jobs. “It’s desirable now” to have a wife who works, says Khaled Al Maeena, former editor of the Saudi Gazette newspaper. “Two-income families are becoming the norm.” Indeed, in the first quarter of 2015, roughly 1.3 million of the nearly 1.9 million women employed in Saudi Arabia were married, according to the Ministry of Labor.

Brides’ fathers, meanwhile, increasingly demand that the right to study and work be explicitly guaranteed in the marriage contract, according to interviews with dozens of young women here. Specifying a woman’s rights at the time of engagement would prevent her husband from later preventing her from working or studying. Statistics back up this shift: 52 percent of university students are now women, many of them married.

Inside some marriages, too, the power dynamic has begun to shift. Attar has seen this happen firsthand: When she and Magboul married 14 years ago, she had just returned home from studying for seven years in Switzerland and the United States. She had a communications degree and every ambition to start a career, but found it difficult to secure a job in the media industry. Soon, responsibilities multiplied: There were four children and a home to care for.

By 2008, Attar had grown restless. Her mother-in-law had taught her how to tailor, and she started to make her own clothing. Word of her uniquely bright abayas slowly got out among her friends, who appreciated the garments’ combination of fashion and modesty. Attar sewed more and more, setting up trunk shows around the peak shopping times of Ramadan and the Hajj pilgrimage.

Magboul took note as his wife’s business grew. As she displayed her wares at boutiques around town, Attar said, “my husband started to realize that [the shops] were taking too much of a percentage from me and I wasn’t earning as much as I should.”

Without telling his wife, Magboul began to look for places to set up a shop of their own. Red Sea Mall in Jeddah offered affordable rent, and one day he made his pitch. “And by the way, I already signed the [lease] agreement,” he added at the end, by Attar’s retelling. Magboul also put in a financial commitment and dealt with most of the paperwork, since the majority of property contracts require a man’s signature. Not long after, their first boutique opened its doors.

Attar’s shift into a new role wasn’t always easy for the couple. Suddenly there were two sources of income and two opinions that carried equal weight — two decision-makers with views about how to run the business and the home. “I never had challenges with my relationship the way I did when I opened my business,” Attar remembers.

That turmoil is showing up in marriages more and more, social counselors here say. “The role of women in the household is different now because the women used to be followers but now they are leaders,” says Maha Abdallah Al Qattan, a social counselor in Riyadh. “Financially also, they start to argue about who pays for what since women have their own jobs and get paid. It’s about authority.”

Meanwhile, growing numbers of women are divorcing husbands who are not supportive of their ambitions. Divorce rates in Saudi Arabia have skyrocketed in recent years, and government statistics indicate that wives’ desires to work is a flash point for conflict. Local media have reported that in 2011 some 40 percent of khula divorces — those in which the wife asks for separation — came after a husband forced her to quit her job.

Those numbers are the foundation of a shift in Saudi society, argue analysts like Al Maeena. “The girls are not marrying just to marry,” Al Maeena says. “Once there is financial independence for women, believe me, they will not care for [restrictive marriages] anymore.”

Economics may indeed be one of the greatest drivers for women’s rights in the years to come, specifically because the change happens within the family itself. “It does somehow change the relationship,” says Al Dosary, the young working mother. “With a job, I have my own money to buy things even without my husband.”

“Even without my husband” — those words are shattering the social expectations governing female life. Men may retain many legal rights over women, but their power at home could erode with time.

As Attar’s husband chimes in from the back office, “She does the hard work; she’s the front line. I’m in the back, just making sure it runs as smooth as possible.”

Elizabeth Dickinson

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