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Saudi Women Can't Drive To Work; So They're Flocking To The Internet

Nouf al-Mazrou, with the red head scarf in the center, runs a barbeque catering business from her home in the Saudi capital Riyadh. She's shown here at a gathering of Saudi women who have launched businesses on Instagram. The event was held at a private girls school.
Deborah Amos / NPR
Nouf al-Mazrou, with the red head scarf in the center, runs a barbeque catering business from her home in the Saudi capital Riyadh. She's shown here at a gathering of Saudi women who have launched businesses on Instagram. The event was held at a private girls school.

In a country where women are prohibited from driving themselves to work, technology is opening new avenues to the job market in Saudi Arabia.

Thousands of women use Instagram, the popular photo-sharing site, to launch businesses that sell goods and services, from cupcakes to sushi, in the desert kingdom.

At a recent convention of Instagram businesses, hundreds of women set up booths at a private girls school in the capital Riyadh to share success stories.

"Every gift, I made it myself, or I bring it from Vegas or London," says Reema Khateb at a booth that is crammed with decorative tables and embroidered cushions. Khateb, a 33-year-old former banker, says she quit her job to set up her own business.

"Do what you love, love what you do," she says about her new career.

Social media was already an outlet for Saudi women in a conservative society with severe restrictions on women, including a ban on driving.

Nouf al-Mazrou, who runs a barbeque catering business with her sisters, says she started BBQ-Time because she wanted to be her own boss.

"I'm free, and no man has to take responsibility for me," says the single mom, as she wraps up a grilled burger after piling on the homemade sauce.

There are still challenges. For example, she needs a male driver to make deliveries. But the women are finding ways to make it happen.

"First it was cupcakes, now it's getting into interesting stuff," says Maha Taibah, an adviser at the Ministry of Labor.

Taibah says many women are entrepreneurial in spirit, and the explosion of Instagram businesses is "their way of expressing themselves."

Running A Business Online

Startups on social media became a draw for women because it's easier than tangling with government bureaucracy to get a business license and the women can set their hours and work from home.

It's all happening so fast that the Labor Ministry hasn't yet been able to count the income as part of the informal economy.

"We are looking at it; we are trying to figure out how we can put a number on it," says Taibah. "It happened over the last three years."

Taibah heads a government-backed project to double the number of women in the workplace in the next few years. It's a huge challenge in a country where even educated women can struggle to find work. It's estimated that half of the unemployed women in Saudi Arabia are college graduates.

Her team includes prominent American academics, including economists and labor experts from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

"You go to the best," Taibah says of her partners. "They are coming from a global mindset."

This is the first collaboration with an aim to set policies to promote women in the workplace.

At the same time, policy proposals include removing other barriers to female employment.

"We are looking at subsidies that would jump-start the system and get the ball rolling — transportation subsidies, day-care subsides and training subsides," says Taibah.

Watching For Signs From The New King

The initiative started under the former monarch, King Abdullah, who died in January. It's not clear whether the new king, Salman, has the same commitment to advancing opportunities for women.

In a recent government shakeup, King Salman removed the only woman appointed to a high government position.

Norah al-Faiz, the deputy education minister, was known as a champion of mandatory physical education for girls in Saudi state schools. Her removal has prompted fears that the new king may roll back gains for women, but there are harsh economic realities even a king cannot ignore.

Oil prices have fallen dramatically, no longer enough to balance the government budget. Family budgets are also under strain, says Saudi blogger and English professor, Eman al-Nafjan.

"Most of us are not rich at all. About 70 percent of us don't own our own houses; a lot of us live month to month," Nafjan says.

For the Saudi middle class, a one-income household is often not enough to make ends meet, and many of the poorest Saudis are in families headed by women.

Ambitious Goals

Meeting the Labor Ministry goals of doubling the number of women in the workplace is a radical shift in a conservative society with rigid rules on driving and where gender segregation is still the norm. The hurdles to finding a job and then getting to work are still enormous.

The oldest philanthropic organization in the capital is stepping in to help clear some of those hurdles.

Al-Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women offers job skill training classes for women who have never mixed with men outside of the family.

The hardest lesson, says Mosa Otaibi, the dynamic head of training, is confidence.

"They would come and commit, they would do their best, but it's in their head that they can't do it in the outer world," Otaibi says.

Otaibi focuses on basic skills. For example, eye contact is a hurdle for women who wear the face veil, part of Saudi's traditional culture.

"Sometimes we say, 'If you find it difficult to hold eye contact, look at the forehead, in the middle.' We have all these tricks," Otaibi adds.

And she has found success. More than 70 percent of the women who take the classes move into the workplace. Economics are changing Saudi Arabia, and women want to be part of that change.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deborah Amos
Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.