From the October 1999 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 46, No. 10)


Educated for Indolence

Joel Campagna, World Press Review contributing editor

Despite billions of dollars spent by the state on their education, women in Saudi Arabia can't find work. Difficult economic times may lead to more women in the workplace, but their full integration into the work force will remain a daunting task for the country's rulers because of rigid social strictures based in Islamic law, writes David Hirst in the liberal daily Guardian of London.

According to Hirst, women are now 58 percent of Saudi university students, yet only about 275,000-2 percent of the workforce-are employed. Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi Islamic movement, overseen by the country's powerful clergy, or ulema, has helped to reinforce these patterns. Their interpretation of Islamic law prohibits mixing of the sexes in public-a major impediment to employment of women in the male-dominated Saudi society.

But with the oil boom and the heady days of economic prosperity behind it, the country may face new pressures to find ways of incorporating more women into the workforce. Women in the workplace, notes Hirst, are becoming less of a social issue and more of an economic one as families, feeling the financial pinch, look for ways to generate additional income. "This is one of a range of steadily growing problems which, unchecked, will threaten the kingdom's stability," he writes.

Real change, says Hirst, will depend on the ability of the royal family to overrule religious authorities. "But Crown Prince Abdullah, on whom high hopes are pinned, does not yet have the standing, even if he has the desire, to defy the ulema," he writes.

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