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More Saudi women join the workforce, but limits remain strict

They are challenging sex segregation, taking jobs in education, medicine, and banking.

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Saudi women are prohibited from driving, voting, traveling abroad, or working without the permission of a male relative.

But they are joining the work force. A new all-women's light-fixture factory and a car salesroom for women are two small cracks in the patriarchal system that has by law relegated women to second-class status.

Just as in the West, Saudi women are graduating from universities at higher rates than men. And they are demanding opportunities that the ulema – the Islamic scholars who hold vast sway in the Kingdom – have long denied them.

They are taking jobs in education, medicine, and banking. Lately, the country's labor minister has been pushing for legal changes that would allow more women to work in retail jobs and factories – a sharp challenge to Saudi Arabia's sex segregation.

So far, the job opportunities for educated Saudi women have been largely thanks to the grace of the men in their lives. Many women remain barred from work, education, even choosing their own husbands, by male family members.

While most women here say they hope there are fewer obstacles to the success of their daughters, there is no consensus on how far social change should be allowed to go.

Take Amal al-Hazzaa, a molecular biologist and one of the country's leading cancer researchers. Raised in Tucson, Ariz., until the seventh grade, she returned here to educational opportunities her mother could hardly have dreamed of. "I have never felt barred from getting where I want to be," she says.

But she acknowledges her success wouldn't have been possible without a father and husband who have supported her every step of the way.

When she received a scholarship for her PhD in Britain, her husband quit his job in Saudi Arabia so he could be the male relative that accompanied her abroad. He effectively became a househusband for a year to look after their sons.


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