PHOTOS: Saudi women at work

These women are fighting for change.

by Laura Boushnak

This story appears in the May issue of VICE magazine. 

Saudi Arabia is one of the most religious and patriarchal countries in the world. Recently, I went there for an ongoing project, to see how some of the nation’s most highly educated women manage to study—and then work—under such obstacles. With a relatively high female unemployment rate, the nation has few opportunities for them in skilled labor: Of those who are able to find jobs, 96 percent work as teachers, and I wondered, before I arrived, about the occupations of the other 4 percent.

While the government has sought to replace low-skilled foreign laborers with native Saudis, and, according to one person in charge of this initiative who spoke to me, women specifically, job openings for shop assistants and factory workers do little to help women with college degrees and higher qualifications. The new reforms may boost the economy and female employment, but critics argue that it’s slow and not enough, especially given that strict segregation and male guardianship laws remain in place.

So in Jeddah, a more liberal city with high unemployment, I followed five college-educated women to learn about their personal lives, work, and ideas—and how, ultimately, they exist in a society that seems so constantly against them. Change in Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich world power, would mean change in the rest of the region.

Lede Image: Rozana, 32, at right, during a business-coaching session with her client. She’s the first Saudi woman to be an associate certified coach and a certified professional Co-Active coach. She focuses on helping others be more effective leaders. She’s currently working with a number of organizations led by Saudi women. Above Image: Rozana poses at the seafront in Jeddah.

Filmmaker and actress Ahd, 35, tries on a wig during a casting session in Jeddah for her first feature film, My Driver and I. Ahd left Jeddah at 17 to study law in New York City but dropped out. Despite some disapproval, she then entered film school and pursued the art professionally. She returned to Jeddah four years ago to work on her short film “Sanctity.”

“I don’t have to censor myself in front of him,” Ahd said, describing her uncle. She grew up in Jeddah in a privileged family, the only girl among four brothers. By 19, she had lost both her parents to cancer.

Basma, 32, answers work emails on her way home. Basma is a co-founder and the managing director of training at Emkan Education, a school-development company based in Jeddah. The three female partners of Emkan advise private and public institutions, developing curriculums and customized educational content.

Basma, who works long hours, enjoys her time with friends at a weekend house outside Jeddah.

Mona, 31, works with a colleague at a Dow Chemical lab, on the campus of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Mona loves chemistry, and she decided to study engineering in college, knowing there weren’t many women in that field. When she started at Dow, she was the first Saudi woman to ever join.

Mona lives alone and enjoys riding her bike at night to relax after long hours of work.

Alaa, 35, tends to a client at her clinic in Jeddah. She is the only female ocularist in the region. Because Alaa was the first Saudi to make artificial eyes, she had to wait four years for a Ministry of Health license to open her clinic in 2010. Despite the possibility of working in another country, she remained, feeling her services were necessary.

With the support of her family, Alaa, pictured here in Jeddah, received her first professional training in Spain.

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