In the Gulf area, religious customs and social norms make it a taboo for women to mix publicly with unrelated men, even for trivial purposes. In a male-dominated world, this makes it nearly impossible for women to earn an income. Now, economic necessity is forcing the conservative society to accept the idea of women in the workplace.
Many women-only ventures are being created to bring more women into the country’s workforce. Mega-retailer H&M is opening the first women-only department store in Saudi Arabia. Though small female-run stores already exist, this major venture is a landmark concession by the Saudi Government.
Saudi Arabia’s newest hotel is also women-owned, women-managed, and women-run – from the IT engineer to the electrical engineer. Until January, women could not check into any hotel alone unless accompanied by a male family member or if they had written permission from a male guardian.
Saudi and UAE banks have set up segregated branches for women only. In the UAE, a government holding company has set up an investment company run by women for women. These facilities allow women to manage their finances independently of prying fathers, brothers or husbands.
Home businesses and business dealings are also starting to crop up. The Economist reports, Western female bankers are seizing this opportunity and travel regularly to the region to hold private meetings with female clients in their homes.
Saudi official Faisal bin Muammar said high unemployment among Saudis and the reliance upon seven million foreign workers was forcing the societal change. “We cannot go on having seven million foreigners [at work] and our graduate women in their houses.”
To some, the Gulf’s women-only places are a sign of progress; for others, it simply reinforces gender segregation. Whatever the case, there are still problems for women gaining access to capital. It is difficult for female businesswomen to obtain loans, especially if they are not from prominent families. Even in Bahrain, where nearly one-third of businesses are registered by women, some can only get a business license in their husband's name. This just goes to show that the idea of women in the workplace has yet to fully materialize.