For Women In Saudi Arabia, Gender Segregation More Like A 'Glass Wall'
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Yesterday, women in Saudi Arabia were able to vote for the very first time. And there are reports today that a handful of women have won district seats. Our own Rachel Martin is in the capital city of Riyadh covering those elections. She joins us now. Hi, Rachel.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: So, Rachel, what have women been telling you about the significance of this vote?
MARTIN: Well, I've heard a range of views, as you might expect. One woman told me that being able to vote was the equivalent of being given a cashmere sweater when she needs a place to live, which really struck me. She just doesn't see how this vote, this election, will affect her daily life. Other women told me that being allowed to run for public office and vote for the candidate of their choice may not necessarily move the needle on big women's issues here; but they say it's a powerful symbol, and change has to start somewhere.
WERTHEIMER: What kind of change are they talking about?
MARTIN: In general, women want more control over their lives. Where that has started to change already is in the workplace. There's been a gradual move to dismantle the walls that separate men and women, at least in the professional arena.
PRINCESS REEMA BINT BANDAR AL SAUD: I guess the glass ceiling is in the West. For us, it's the glass wall.
MARTIN: This is Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, and as you might guess from her last name, she's a member of the sprawling Saudi royal family. Because what trip to a kingdom would be complete without a visit with a princess? Reema went to school in the United States, and she talks in a quick and direct American style. Until recently, she was the CEO of the high-end department store Harvey Nichols here in Riyadh. We're in the marketing offices above the sales floor, and she's pointing to a glass-encased office. This is where her female employees sit.
SAUD: She can stand up, but you can see her. And it's important for me to make sure that the men see and recognize that that woman is their equal. But out of respect for our community and our culture, she's in her private space.
MARTIN: There has to be a physical barrier.
MARTIN: But it can be transparent.
MARTIN: So you kind of get around.
SAUD: Absolutely. And I'm OK with that.
SAUD: Because you know what? Before, she wasn't allowed in the office in the first place.
MARTIN: Six years ago, Princess Reema decided that the way to get more women into her store was to make them more comfortable. And that meant hiring women to sell things to them.
How did the men react?
SAUD: It was difficult when we first hired the ladies because they weren't sure how to react to them. They weren't sure how to get in an elevator with them. They weren't sure, is it OK to say good morning or do we ignore her? But once she's your colleague, you've got to kind of talk to this girl. And we just kept moving the girls up to more senior positions.
MARTIN: Have you ever had a family come in and say, actually, this is not going to work for our daughter or our wife?
SAUD: On the shop floor, yes, very regularly. Then ladies will sign up to be salesgirls. They will come in, and when it's a pressure point, sometimes she will come in with her husband, who will tell us and inform us - by the way, not informing HR, he'll come into the store and tell the floor manager - she's not coming in to work anymore. But what's interesting is quite a few of the ones that leave, under duress perhaps, do come back. And my theory for why they come back is the husband needs the second income. And once you taste the second income in the household and it changes your lifestyle, you get used to it. And when you're deprived of that second income, you want it again. I'll show you our cosmetics rooms downstairs.
MARTIN: She covers her head with her black scarf and leads me downstairs.
SAUD: Today, we are the number-one-selling cosmetics area in the country.
MARTIN: Saudi women like makeup.
SAUD: Saudi women like makeup, yes. And I'm OK with that (laughter). I'm OK with that. I'll tell you why I'm OK with that. If that's what you want to make you feel good, go for it.
MARTIN: All the big names are here, Chanel, Dior, La Mer. And working behind the counters are women, all dressed the same, long, black robes called abayas. Some wear thin veils over their faces. Most just have a loose scarf around their head, like Ramia Al-Abbosh. We meet her over at the Bobbi Brown makeup counter. I sit down in her chair for a little tutorial.
RAMIA AL ABBOSH: What do you think? What's the color that's matched with your skin?
MARTIN: I think that one.
MARTIN: The last one.
ABBOSH: Nice, natural number four.
MARTIN: Her English isn't very good, so Princess Reema fills me in on her story. She tells me that when this young woman first started working here, she was harassed by some customers who didn't like that idea much.
SAUD: You should be ashamed to work here is actually what they told her. You should be ashamed.
MARTIN: One man was so angry he had to be escorted out of the building. Over the years, there have been other incidents as well.
SAUD: This is the room that got me in trouble.
MARTIN: It's a separate room to the side of the makeup counters where women can have their makeup done in private or even get a facial. It's just your basic spa room with a reclining chair.
SAUD: As you can see, it's a white box, a lovely image of a fish tank, and this is a reclining chair. You can see the healing crystals and all of that - beautiful. This door was open, and somebody that was slightly more conservative walked by and took a picture of this while it was in full recline.
MARTIN: The man wrote an angry tweet about a female member of the royal family who runs a department store...
SAUD: And that in this store, I had women in a room with a bed that they don't know what's going on behind the wall.
MARTIN: That was enough to cause a Twitter firestorm. Princess Reema increased security after that, and they made sure to keep the doors to the private rooms closed. Now, several years on, customers are used to seeing women in retail stores of all kinds. But Reema says getting women to these jobs is still an issue.
SAUD: The obstacle, if you ask me, I have no problem saying it, is driving.
MARTIN: Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving has gotten international attention. Some have stepped in to fill that need. Uber operates here now. And there are other driver-on-demand services that cater to women.
SAUD: Within this limitation of no women driving, opportunity is booming. It's fascinating. So that's kind of where we are - obstacle, yes, opportunity, yes.
MARTIN: Soon after that, the Saudi princess took her leave. She adjusted her black headscarf, checked her smartphone and flashed an endlessly optimistic smile.
WERTHEIMER: Rachel, it sounds like she's trying to make a difference there, opening up more professional opportunities. But can you tell me how a Saudi woman can run a business, but she still has be escorted in public by a man; she still can't drive?
MARTIN: Well, it's a good question, Linda. It's confusing in a lot of ways. There are all kinds of contradictions in this country. I've only been here a few days, but it's already clear there are different kinds of rules - different set of rules for different people. First of all, Reema is a princess, and all kinds of social allowances are made for the royal family. But really, this is still a culture governed by men. And so if a girl has a father who wants her to go to school and get a job, then she can do it. If that father doesn't want that to happen, then it won't happen. And so many of the social restrictions we see on women here aren't necessarily codified in law. There are cultural norms, deeply held traditional mores that are far more entrenched and will, as a result, take much longer to change.
WERTHEIMER: That's WEEKEND EDITION host Rachel Martin. She's been reporting from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia this week. Thank you, Rachel.
MARTIN: Thanks, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.