The Growing Role of Professional Women      in Saudi Society.



Saudi Arabia has long recognized that the development of human resources is a key element in a nation’s march to progress. The educational institutions it has established have produced many young professionals, both male and female, who are filling positions in the work force in a wide range of fields. As part of the objectives of the Kingdom’s development plans, women in Saudi Arabia today are vigorously pursuing higher education and professional careers, and seeking to become active members of society where their roles are defined in terms of what they can offer for their country’s economic, as well as social and cultural development.

On April 17, a number of prominent women known for their contributions in the fields of science and social work were honored by Princess Al-Jawhara Bint Ibrahim, wife of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd Ibn Abdul Aziz. The honorees were Dr. Sameera Islam, a professor of pharmacology and recipient of the 1999 UNESCO prize for women in science; Dr. Salwa Al-Haza, a consultant in ophthalmology and winner of the 1999 award for Arab Woman of the Year; and Al-Jawhara Bint Muhammad Al-Anqari, Vice President of the Al-Faisaliya Charitable Society.


For Saudis, Islamic Shari’ah is a source of guidance for everyday life, and the role of women in Saudi society cannot be fully understood without acknowledging the rights and responsibilities bestowed on them by Islam. Fourteen centuries ago, Islam gave women the right to run their own businesses and, more importantly, the right to learn.

   Under Islam, men and women are equally independent agents and equally required to observe the ordinance of the law. This entitles them to equal enjoyment of human dignity, and equal freedom of choice, expression, and action, whether to learn or teach, own property or sign contracts, engage in trade or inherit in their own right. Men and women receive identical punishments for failing to carry out their obligations and identical rewards for fulfilling them and performing good deeds.

   The Prophet’s wife, Khadijah, was herself a prominent businesswoman. Sheikha Nafissa was a theologian, one of whose students was Imam Shafei, father of one of Islam’s four schools of Shari’ah. During the early days of Islam, women like Al-Khansa’ and Khowlah Bint Khowailed fought alongside men to defend their religion, and Zubaidah built a series of cisterns to provide water for pilgrims en route from Mesopotamia to Makkah.

In Islam, women are not obliged to take financial responsibility either for themselves or for any of their family members. In recent years, however, some Saudi women have chosen to take paid employment in order to care for elderly parents, or, if widowed or divorced, to provide for their children. Some simply share financial responsibility with their husbands to improve their family’s standard of living. Female professionals working in the public sector receive the same pay for equal work as their male counterparts. They are, however, entitled to two months’ maternity leave in addition to the benefits and pensions offered to men.



When we talk about the comprehensive development that our country is witnessing, we cannot ignore the role of Saudi women and their participation in this development. The productive role of women...has been a definite result of the great investment that the country has dedicated to the field of education for all of its citizens, men and women. As a result, Saudi women have been able to earn the highest educational credentials, which has enabled them to work diligently in different fields. Saudi women have proven their ability to handle responsibilities with great success, whether through their principal duty as mothers, or as professionals. We look forward to women acquiring a major role in a way that will promote the interests of this nation on the basis of Shari’ah (Islamic law).”

Crown Prince Abdullah Ibn Abdul Aziz


FurthermoFurthermore, many non-professionals work as volunteers in various social, educational, cultural and health organizations. Philanthropic organizations, such as Al-Nahda and Al-Faisaliya, are flourishing all over the Kingdom, with emphasis on adult literacy and providing proper care for the orphaned and, many non-professionals work as volunteers in various social, educational, cultural and health organizations. Philanthropic organizations, such as Al-Nahda and Al-Faisaliya, are flourishing all over the Kingdom, with emphasis on adult literacy and providing proper care for the orphaned and handicapped.
Ms. Sultana Ali Riza, Founder of the Jeddah Institute for Speech and Hearing

Ms. Sultana Ali Riza, Founder of the Jeddah Institute for Speech and Hearing



Aside from economic factors, many Saudi women want to make use of their university degrees. Thus, the number of working women is increasing rapidly. In the public sector they are university professors, mathematicians, scientists, teachers, administrators, nurses, doctors, media personnel and social workers. In the private sector, women work in agriculture, banking, trade, real estate, interior design, pharmacology, biology and biochemistry. They own and manage boutiques, restaurants, beauty salons, tailoring establishments and even construction companies, car dealerships and manufacturing plants. When it comes to business activity, there is no distinction between the two sexes. Areas of business operations are open to both, and both enjoy the same facilities and services provided by the Saudi Council of Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

On March 10 of last year, Saudi businesswomen participated in the Second Conference of Arab Business-women in Cairo. Included in its deliberations was the formation of a federation of Arab businesswomen’s associations. In recent years, a number of Saudi women have become legal advisors, dealing specifically with women’s issues, and economic analysts, giving advice to women interested in investment.

Ms. Sultana Ali Riza, founder of the Jeddah Institute for Speech and Hearing (JISH), is a prime example of a businesswoman with great vision. She was able to transform her personal trauma into an institution that is the first of its kind in the Kingdom. Two of Ms. Ali Riza’s three sons and her only daughter were born hearing impaired. Having learned from their experiences, she created JISH under the guidance of the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA). Faced with the problem of scarcity of professionals in the field, she arranged for the training of Saudi and Arab speech pathologists, audiologists and therapists, through a scholarship program she set up with San Jose State University. Of the six Saudis, all women, who now hold master’s degrees in speech pathology and audiology, four are beneficiaries of this program. Ms. Ali Riza herself says: “Saudi women are strong fighters, hard working, and have a fierce desire to be contributing members in society.”


“Never will I suffer to be lost, the work of any of you, be he male or female: Ye are members one of another.”

Holy Qur’an

Surah Al-i-Imran 195


   Munirah Abdel-Latif is another pioneer among Saudi female professionals. Married with three children, she holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration and was the first woman to be president of a female branch of the Saudi Commercial Bank (SCB), a post that she held for 19 years until her retirement in 1999. She had entered the work force in 1973 as part of the U.S. Geological Survey, where she worked for seven years. When she joined SCB in 1980, she was the only Saudi at the bank. Now, most of its employees are nationals. Realizing that young people comprise more then half of the current Saudi population, Ms. Abdel-Latif, as president of the women’s branch, organized many educational programs and school trips to teach students banking, savings, and Islamic financial protocols. In addition, she offered incentives to students to open bank accounts regardless of the amount deposited.

Safiyah Binzagar can be considered an ambassador representing Saudi females in the field of art. She started her journey in 1968 with her first art exhibition, which was well received by the public. In the decades that followed she recorded the social history and traditions of all regions of the Kingdom. From 1964 she had been working in the family business, after studying English and secretarial skills in Egypt. On the side, she participated in the early writings of women in newspapers and started to write about her love of art in Al-Bilad newspaper.

Back in Cairo to develop her hobby of drawing, she met the Saudi artist Munirah Mosly, and they decided to hold a joint exhibit, which took place in a girls’ school under the patronage of Prince Mish’al Ibn Abdul Aziz, then Governor of Makkah Province. Although the exhibit was a success, Ms. Binzagar made the decision not to sell her paintings but to keep them all as a record of Saudi culture and heritage for future generations. She returned to school, joining St. Martin’s College of Arts in London, to study fine arts and graphics. At the same time, she began to research social customs, collecting and classifying old costumes, photos, and antiquities. In 1979, her first book, Saudi Arabia: An Artist’s Point of View of the Past, was published in English and French. While continuing to hold exhibitions in the Kingdom and abroad, her dream remained to find a site to display her collections in their entirety.

The “Darah Safiyah Binzagar” opened its doors early this year, a unique museum and a center of learning for art and culture. The “Friends of Safiyah Binzagar Library” program provides mothers and children with a library of art and literary works, and also holds art classes for teachers and students of all ages.

Ms. Binzagar’s project is ambitious: she plans to hold seminars, art lectures and international exhibits, and will soon launch an Internet web site to make the “Darah” available to audiences all over the world. In her most recent publication, A Three-Decade Journey with Saudi Heritage, she writes: “My aim has always remained, throughout my journey with art over the past thirty years, to create a record of our cultural heritage and to realize myself through such a record.

Ms. Binzagar thinks highly of the accomplishments of young Saudi women, acknowledging that many of them are entering fields that were previously exclusive to men or expatriates, and asserting that any Saudi woman who wants to acquire a productive role in her society can do so with hard work and persistence.

Dr. Iman Ibrahim is one of many young Saudi females who have chosen medicine as their profession. A graduate of King Faisal University, she is now a senior registrar in internal medicine. Married, with two children, Dr. Ibrahim describes her family and especially her husband as being the main support to her success in the field of medicine. Female doctors have no preferential treatment; male and female doctors hold the same responsibilities in the hospital, including overnight and on-call duties. Saudi society, she says, holds women doctors in great respect, adding: “The Saudi woman, in the past ten years, has gone through many changes. She has become more educated, she is eager to learn more, she wants to work; and having entered the work force in many fields, she is still a responsible homemaker and mother.” 



Ms. Safiyah Binzagar at her art studio. Below are some of her paintings showing traditional scenes of the lives of Saudi women.



Samar Khizendar is an Infection Control Coordinator and Preventive Medicine Advisor in the hospital of the national oil company, Saudi Aramco, in Dhahran. Holding two master’s degrees, in microbiology and epidemiology, her main job is to analyze hospital data and develop policies for controlling infection. Her unique combination of expertise in statistics and microbiology enables her to integrate many different types of data and make effective recommendations. Ms. Khizendar, while convinced that Saudi women have progressed over the past ten years, would like to see more educational opportunities opened up for females in the field of public health, adding that the Ministry of Health is aware of this and has held a number of seminars on this in recent years.

Professional Saudi women, such as Dr. Ibrahim (right), are making great contributions in a wide array of fields, especially in health care and education.

Mayan Kurdi is a young Saudi woman with an master’s in business administration who entered the business sector recently, setting up NetPeople, a company that provides Internet services to businesses and individuals. As a diplomat’s daughter, she lived in the United Kingdom for a long time, but moved back to Saudi Arabia because, she says: “The market in Saudi Arabia is a virgin ground for ideas and creativity and companies like NetPeople.”

Ms. Kurdi currently employs only women, whom she finds very well educated, motivated and hard working. The irony is that most of her clients are male; however, neither Ms. Kurdi nor any of her female colleagues have experienced any problems with this. She is hopeful that her company, which is less than a year old, will continue to flourish and attract more business, while helping motivate young Saudi women to venture into this field.

Debate over the extent and kind of participation women can have in the Kingdom’s development still continues, but at no time are they denied access to either education or an ever-widening range of jobs since all is within the dictates of Islamic values. Saudi women have never challenged the rules of Shari’ah, but on the contrary, it is these rules that they want to follow. Islamic dress is not an issue; Saudi women themselves do not subscribe to the idea that somehow they could pursue a more active role in society by abandoning Islamic dress code. What is important to these women is not what they wear, but the continued development of their minds, the acquisition of useful skills, and their integration in a productive way into the progress that Saudi Arabia has made within the framework of the rights that Islam bestowed on them 14 centuries ago.{short description of image}

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