KHOBAR (Saudi Arabia) • Ms Mervat Bukhari, draped head to toe in Islamic niqab, braved insults and taunts to become the first Saudi woman to work at a petrol station, something unimaginable not long ago.
The kingdom, where conservatives once bridled at even limited freedoms for women, is in the midst of reforms that mark the biggest cultural shake-up in its modern history.
Kick-started by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the reforms include the historic decision allowing women to drive from June, attend football matches and take on jobs that once fell outside the narrow confines of traditional gender roles.
However, the backlash faced by women like Ms Bukhari illustrates how new-found empowerment is a potential social lightning rod in a country unaccustomed to such visibility for women.
When Ms Bukhari, 43 and a mother of four, was promoted as supervisor of a petrol station in eastern Khobar city last October, insults began pouring in on social media with the hashtag “Saudi women don’t work at gas stations”.
Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 reform plan for a post-oil era seeks to elevate women to nearly onethird of the workforce, up from about 22 per cent now.
Government statistics also put more than one million Saudi women as currently looking to enter the workforce. The reforms have seen the Saudi labour market slowly open up to women, introducing them to jobs that were once firmly the preserve of men. But women face sobering realities – despite often being better qualified than men.
Average monthly salaries in the private sector are close to 8,000 Saudi riyals (S$2,815) for men, and only 5,000 riyals for women, according to research firm Jadwa.
Saudi Arabia ranked 138 out of 144 countries in the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum on gender parity. But Riyadh is seeking to change that through what appears to be social engineering. The decision to allow women to drive after a decades-long ban could give women the much-needed mobility to join the workforce. For the first time, women are seen alongside men in jazz music concerts and in mixed-gender restaurants, as the influence of the once-feared religious police appears to be waning.
But Saudi activists say social change will only be cosmetic without dismantling the kingdom’s rigid guardianship system, which requires that women seek permission from a male relative to study, travel and other activities.
Yet authorities appear to be slowly dismantling the many injustices against women ingrained in the law – Saudi women now no longer need male permission to start a business. Saudi Arabia also recently annulled the “house of obedience” article in the marriage law, which grants a husband the right to summon his wife to his home against her will.
The reform introduces a novel concept in married life: mutual consent. “This is not a revolution. This is evolution,” said Ms Hoda al-Helaissi, a member of the advisory Shura Council, referring to newfound social liberties. “It’s a rite of passage for women.”