By Raya Jalabi
UNAIZAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – Stepping out of a shared taxi in central Riyadh, Reham Al-Ahmed walked into the shopping mall where she works four days a week selling cosmetics.
Al-Ahmed, a high school graduate, is the first woman in her family to have a job. Her parents had never wanted her to work but they eventually relented as life in the capital became too expensive.
With steep new taxes and cuts to government subsidies, many families are increasingly relying on women to work. In so doing, women are negotiating a new place for themselves in their country's delicate social fabric – a trend celebrated by some and watched suspiciously by others in a country still tethered to its conservative traditions.
Al-Ahmed, who lives at home with her parents and five younger siblings, chose a shop with mostly female clients to allay her parents' concerns about mixing with men.
"I used to feel guilty asking my father for anything," the 24-year-old said. "But since I started working, I'm proud I can help out my family."
Showing up to work across the country every day are thousands of women like Al-Ahmed – unimaginable just a few years ago but now increasingly the norm under reforms led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to modernise the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia is highlighting its progress on women at a time of scrutiny in the West over its human rights record, including a crackdown on dissent that ensnared dozens of women's rights activists and the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. An absolute monarchy, it permits no political parties or elections.
Men still have a tight grip on power. There are currently no women in King Salman's cabinet or in senior advisory roles, and the advisory Shura Council has only 30 women members out of 150.
But women now make up 33% of Saudi's labour force – nearly double what it was five years ago. Across age brackets and education levels, they are taking up jobs previously restricted to Saudi men and migrant workers in restaurants, supermarkets, accounting and graphic design firms.
As part of the reforms, women have been allowed to drive since 2018. But Al-Ahmed, who earns 4,500 riyals ($1,200) a month, cannot afford driving lessons, let alone a car.
"I spend nearly a third of my salary on taxis," she said, and is saving up for a car. "But I'm really happy to have a job, to earn my own money finally. I never thought this would be possible for me."
A small number of women had long worked in Saudi Arabia but typically held public sector jobs as teachers or medical workers, in keeping with once-strict gender segregation rules.
But with looser restrictions on mixing, driving and some aspects of the male guardianship system, firms are hiring more women than ever.
This is particularly true in retail and hospitality, sectors in which the government launched a scheme in 2011 to replace cheaper foreign workers with citizens to tackle Saudi unemployment, currently at 11%.
"A lot of jobs that are going to women were traditionally occupied by non-Saudis," said economist Jennifer Peck. New laws have made it easier for women to work in client-facing jobs.
According to her research, the number of Saudi women in the private sector jumped to 935,508 in 2021 from 56,000 in 2010, and continues to climb.
The changes are not just happening in Riyadh.
In Unaizah, a city in the conservative heartland of Qassim, attitudes are shifting and more women are working despite wariness among some about upending decades of tradition.
After graduating from university, Ghada al-Salman, 33, struggled to find a job in Qassim, where women's unemployment still hovers at 18%, more than three times the rate for men.
She turned to baking, eventually opening three stores that employ 45 people. At a recent date festival, she promoted her Rose Ribbon Bakery, one of few women-owned businesses in Qassim.
"Without my parents, I wouldn't have been able to do any of this," she said, serving customers slices of date cake.
"Most fathers here would still not be okay with their daughters working all day alongside men; even if they're the boss, even if they're wearing the niqab."
Salman, like most women in public spaces in Unaizah, wears a full-face covering and long black abaya. But she still faces admonishment from older conservatives.
Happily eating one of her cupcakes, a man in his 60s complained about the fast pace of social change.
"(The government) is telling us women must work – but that goes against our traditions. In Islam, men take care of women," he said, requesting anonymity.
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For others, the changes are overdue. Rana Alturki, 45, who joined her father's oil and gas firm in 2000 as one of its first female hires, worked for years in a gender-segregated office.
"Back then, the men were not even polite: no one would say good morning or get in the elevator with me, they wouldn't even stand in the same room as me," said Alturki, now an owner and manager at Rawabi Holding Co.
"Thankfully, things have changed," said Alturki. "In my day, we were too scared to even ask for a salary. But girls these days – they come in and negotiate hard. They know their worth."
Despite this, the gender pay gap in Saudi Arabia stands at 49%, according to research by NGO Al Nahda.
"Social attitudes still govern women's access to the labour market," said Hala al-Dosari, a U.S.-based Saudi women's rights expert, who notes the bulk of new jobs for women are low-paying.
Although laws were introduced against harassment and discrimination, they are not systematic and women are still being harassed and denied their rights, Dosari said.
Some employers still ask women for their male guardian's approval during hiring, the economist Peck said, despite recent reforms giving women greater control over their lives.
One employer at a large company told Reuters he prefers to hire women because "they work twice as hard, for half the pay". Nearly all 400 firms interviewed by Peck's research group said Saudi women's wages were lower, while a third said women were more productive.
But for many Saudi women, these are just growing pains.
"Young women ask me all the time how they can do what I do," said bakery owner Salman. "I tell them: 10 years ago, it would have been impossible. But now, the future is yours."
($1 = 3.7508 riyals)
(Reporting by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Angus MacSwan)
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