Thursday, December 6, 2012

In Support of Saudi Women and Hardees

There is a saying that I hear all the time in Saudi Arabia as far as progress goes:   “One step forward and two steps back.”  So it comes as no surprise that a conservative Saudi cleric has made headlines with an outrageous tweet he posted this week regarding Saudi women in the workforce.  


Global hamburger chain Hardees, which has operated in Saudi Arabia since 1981, tiptoed into KSA’s modern age by becoming the first restaurant chain in the country to hire female waitresses in several of its Jeddah locations.  While many other Saudi residents and I applaud this move, Sheikh Ali Al Mutairi has called for a boycott of the fast-food chain and has voiced his own opinion via Twitter:  “At the beginning of her shift she’s a waitress. When her shift ends she becomes a prostitute. The more she’s around men the easier it becomes to get closer to her.”   

Basically, in Al Mutairi’s mind, all working women are whores.  

Not only is his statement insulting and degrading to women everywhere, he unfortunately perpetuates the notion that women are only looked upon as sexual objects in this society and that Saudi men are not expected to be able to control themselves at the sight of a shapeless veiled woman flipping burgers.  Although Al Mutairi has his fair share of ultra-conservative supporters (one tweet congratulated him for being  “a splinter in the throats of liberals”), the sheikh’s tweet has ignited outrage among many in Saudi Arabia who claim that his stance is offensive and treads in dangerous waters according to the teachings of Islam, by commonly labeling these women as prostitutes without having any proof. 


Saudi Arabia’s oil-driven economy has remained fairly strong amidst worldwide financial turmoil, but as prices have steadily risen these past few years, many families have felt the pinch.  A large chunk of Saudi Arabia’s work force consists of foreign workers, who are not only hired in practically every field of work there is, but also dominate those lower paid positions which are traditionally considered beneath Saudis, such as all hard labor jobs, restaurant workers, street sweepers and garbage collectors.  Even though the number of highly educated Saudi women exceeds that of Saudi men, the number of Saudi women who actually work outside the home remains dismally below that of men.  Added to that is the fact that women in Saudi Arabia are still prohibited from driving, and the country must import foreign male drivers to chauffeur around the half of the population crippled by this nonsensical and costly policy.  



When I first moved to Saudi Arabia in 2007, women were mainly allowed to work in only two fields:  education and medicine.   No women were allowed to work in sales, forcing women to purchase personally intimate items such as cosmetics, perfumes, bras, panties, and sexy lingerie from men.  In a society where there is strict gender segregation, and where women must wear loosely draped black outer cloaks and scarves covering their hair, and where many women even veil their faces, placing a Saudi woman in a situation where a salesman would suggest she needed a D-cup instead of a C was as ludicrous as it was humiliating.   A well-executed campaign by Saudi women against this preposterous policy caused a change in the law, and this past year saleswomen in cosmetics and lingerie shops have popped up in malls everywhere.  There was also a religious backlash when leading Saudi supermarket chain Hyper Panda hired female cashiers a couple of years ago, but that uproar has since died down and female workers have become a common sight in supermarkets.  

So in a place where social change is notoriously slow and even considered backward, there has been an undeniable and remarkable amount of progress for Saudi women in the five short years since I moved to Saudi Arabia, thanks to the leadership of the cautiously progressive champion of women’s rights King Abdullah.   

But calling female employees at Hardees Restaurants “prostitutes” illustrates the type of Saudi male and religious mentality that Saudi women are up against.  I read several news reports and blog posts about the Hardees tweet, and the comments were disheartening and horrifying to me.  This type of incident just opens up Saudi Arabia as a whole to ridicule by the rest of the world, making targets of hard-working Saudi women who just want to help support their families, and serving to reassure those who are anti-Muslim, anti-Saudi, or anti-Arab that they are justified in feeling the way they do. Why do these religious clerics continue to supply fodder/ammunition such as this to these haters?  Wouldn't there have been a more politically correct and appropriate way of stating his point of view without slandering these female employees as outright "prostitutes?"  Is it better/safer for women to beg in the streets here instead of holding down an honest job?

I’ve lived here in this country long enough to realize that Saudi Arabia could care less about what the rest of the world thinks of them and their ways.  But I also know that there are many in Saudi Arabia who want more for their wives, sisters and daughters and who are patient that change is slowly coming.  

We try not to eat that much fast-food any more, but I'm going to talk my hubby into taking me to Hardees for lunch or dinner soon, hopefully one where there is a female behind the counter to take my order. If you live in Saudi Arabia, please show your support for Hardees and for Saudi women by taking your family out for a meal at Hardees - and help ensure that Saudi Arabia continues to move forward instead of backwards.

20 comments:

  1. im so pleased to hear this susie i remember first moving to the kingdom over 20 years ago and hoping in my life time to see women drive, every year being promised it not happening, while its important women drive this is a great step that women can be financially free :)

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    1. Hi Trae - I know how frustrating it must have been living here for all those years and not seeing much in the way of change for women. That's why I feel that it's important now to point out that there has been huge progress for Saudi women, even though to many on the outside, it appears to be only baby steps.

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  2. It's another step towards hopefully a more humane society. But Sheikh Ali Al Mutairi is an idiot himself. Or maybe he has a Hardy's girlfriend.

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    1. Hi Gaelyn - There is definitely progress being made for women here in KSA, and it's actually quite exciting. These religious men just need to get with the program.

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  3. I found this a very interesting read and the comments made by the Sheikh shocking. I live in Egypt, obviously another Muslim country but less conservative. I think of my female relatives that have jobs and it saddens me to know how restricted the lives of some of the Saudi women are. I hope that things will improve for them and Hardees is making one small step forward.

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    1. Hi Ruby Tuesday - Thanks so much for your input. Unfortunately KSA remains one of the most conservative societies in the ME, although the present king has truly tried his best to implement reform for the country's female population. I worry about whether his successor will be as forward thinking and wise as King Abdullah is.

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  4. Thank you, Susie, for being a voice from Saudi Arabia. I appreciate your viewpoints being a Western woman living in that society. I feel that we need to be educated to understand other cultures. You are helping me to have a better understanding. I admire you, as I don't know if I could live in Saudi. Again, thank you for your perspective. It is greatly appreciated.

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    1. Hi Sharalyn & David - Thanks so much for your kind comment. It was really distressing to read some of the disparaging comments from other news reports and blogs about this issue - especially those targeting the brave Saudi women here who are just trying to make an honest living. Thanks again.

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  5. Of course, a compassionate human being, like you Susie, will be concerned by the treatment of women around here, but many of the women themselves staunchly believe in clerics like the one mentioned above.. Change will eventually come.. Left to their own devices it will probably take them another 600-700 years to catch up with the rest of the world.. Heck, what do I know? Maybe they are better off, the women of this country - being pampered, never having to take responsibility for any important decisions, being financially taken care off, not having to work hard etc.. I am sure some suffer deeply, but many seem ok with the status quo and that's why it is not changing much..

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    1. Hi Anonymous - I realize that even among Saudi women, many are happy with their lives and the status quo. No one is trying to force them to go to work or to take on responsibility for themselves. But those Saudi women that either need to work or want to work - and I believe that there are more than we care to believe - shouldn't be denied the right to do that. And they most certainly should not be labeled as prostitutes by the religious establishment here. There are reasons why a large percentage of Saudi women are depressed - many are unhappy and unfulfilled in their lives. When the only activity for many of them is retail shopping, it can get really boring really fast.

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  6. this might sound funny, but i wish my saudi husband would not let me work. i would love to be a house wife, and receive monthly allowance. but we're not rich or even close. so if i dont work we wont have enough money for shopping. we live in the states, but i did live in saudi and managed to work there, for some time. my female inlaws didnt work, and received money from there husbands. even the brothers or uncles would give them money. the women expect this way of life. i find it to be a burden on the men. if the women can work at any job she should. but the men dont want there women exposed to the public eye. if these women in hardees were in the colleges working or a all female environment, then it wouldnt be a threat to men. but the sad thing is, i work and my husband giving money to the family members, and it's like unfair. anyway, i enjoy your post. can you do a post on if your husband passes away, what are the benefits for the wife and children living in the kingdom. is there any social securtity they will receive? i read american bedus blog, but her infor is not really like she lives there and knows it all. a lot of contact this person or agency. but you seem informative and knows more. if my husband passes away, i have children and can have the option of living there if they want to. but i would like to know more on that matter. everytime i ask my husband, he doesnt know, and says to just stay in the states. im to much of an adventurist to stay put. thanks

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    1. You are exactly right about the burdens placed on Saudi men - but they have done it all to themselves. They want to be in control of anything and everything having to do with their women. So yes, the women here are pampered, have no responsibility other than raising the kids and taking care of the home (and even at that, most Saudi women have live-in help) and many are spoiled. But honestly, I enjoyed working all my life in the states. I enjoyed earning my own money and paying my own bills and being responsible for myself. I'm an adult and to come here at my age and be treated like a helpless child who cannot make her own decisions without hubby's approval just doesn't sit right with me.
      If you are widowed and you are living in Saudi Arabia, you would still need a legal guardian. This can be good or bad for you, depending on the guardian himself. I've heard plenty of horror stories and would not want to be in the situation of having a guardian who was bad. I wrote a 4-part series based on the true story of a British woman I know whose Saudi husband passed away. She and her children were trapped in Saudi Arabia for many years and she face many problems and hardships because of her husband's family. Here is the link to Part 1: http://susiesbigadventure.blogspot.com/2009/04/widowed-in-saudi-arabia-part-1.html

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  7. thank you for your concern for my kids. they are in the late teens and early twenties and they would be the ones in charge, and they are the type of boys that dont care what the girls do. they dont have the saudi up-tightness mentality. they are fun and forgiving. when we visit saudi we always have fun with certain female relatives who are not so repressed. but i was just wondering on the benefits for us if something happened to my husband as he is ill and im concerned on surviving on my income alone.

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    1. Inheritance is divvied up according to Islamic law. If you are not a Muslim and a Saudi citizen, you do not receive any share. I'm not sure what type of benefits you are talking about, but if you are talking about government assistance, I have no idea, but I don't believe there is much available.

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  8. The Saudis need to realize that the need to live on their own labor if they wish to remain a viable country over the long haul. That means women need to be able to work outside the home. There is an article here http://www.saudigazette.com.sa/index.cfm?method=home.regcon&contentid=20121213145853 about the large amount of money sent by expat workers every year from Saudi Arabia. Just imagine if that amount of wealth was earned by Saudis and spent or re-invested in the country. There is nothing shameful about honest work. There is something shameful about clerics how are too quick to accuse others of vice (does the phrase it takes one to know one come to mind here?).

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    1. Hi Jerry - I totally agree with your assessment. Restricting women from working in various fields because of gender segregation and at the same time restricting women from driving, which places Saudi women inside cars with unrelated males and directly contradicts gender segregation, makes such poor economic sense. I am so happy to see the bias against women working slowly changing, but this religious cleric's views are harmful for the progress of this nation. Bringing in expat workers for jobs Saudi men and women could do and seeing all their wages sent out of the country is bad for the economy of KSA. Common sense needs to prevail, not these poor economic policies.

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  9. Interesting post Susie. I still feel there is a lot of men still selling women's underthings in the old sougs, and it is embarrassing to buy these things. It is really difficult as women in Saudi to always have to shop with only men in the majority of the shops.Especially in places like a pharmacy or clothes shops that sell only womens clothing. Even Abaya shops with 100% Islamic clothing for women have all men selling it. How awkward is it to be going inside an Abaya shop with a man who wants to measure you up close. It just doesn't make logical sense.

    I am not sure if I am the only one but I have this overwhelming sense that the Saudi Arabia youth are not perpetuating following arbitrary rules but want to be an integral part of society, especially the young Saudi women studying at university.

    Why is it that in 2012 the moderate masses in Saudi Arabia allow the country to be dictated by a minority?

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  10. Love this post Susie. I hope you'd be ok with me referring to it in my post. I've found it fascinating how all of this is playing out, especially online. The private sector has to lead the way. My previous employer took so long to hire women, despite it being a Swedish-Swiss firm which placed a great deal of importance on equality in the workplace outside of Saudi Arabia. Kudos to Hardee's and I respect how they have dared to challenge the conservative view that women should not mix with men in the workplace (I have always found this concept just stupid. When I go into the family section there are female customers. Should they even be there if one takes Al Mutairi's views to their logical conclusion?)

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  11. Hi Alex - If the gender segregation thing were at all consistent, it would certainly make things easier to understand here. It's okay for men to assist women customers, but not the way around? It's just a fake sense of gender segregation then. I'm thrilled every time I see women working now in the malls, in lingerie, cosmetics, and dress shops, and in Hyper Panda, etc. I go out of my way to let the management know how happy I am to be waited on by women in these places.

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  12. Again, a pick and choose situation. Please let me know," where is the perfect country with no problems to go to live?" . It just depends on you whether you see the glass is half full or half empty. Thanks for your concern.
    SAL

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