The Changing Face of Saudi Women

In a deeply conservative culture, they are carefully redefining the boundaries of public life.

Inside her family’s sitting room, where she had plumped onto a sofa to pour us Arabic coffee, Noof Hassan was testing out the word “headhunted.” She had never learned this in her English classes at school, and when she heard me say it, she made me repeat it because she liked it so much. “Yes!” she said. “I was headhunted. I’d had many offers before. But this time even my boss said, ‘We don’t want you to go—but this is a good offer.’ ”

Noof is 32 and has thick brown hair, caramel skin, and merry, almond-shaped eyes. The apartment she shares with her husband, Sami, and their two small sons takes up one floor of a three-story building in a crowded neighborhood of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Two years ago, the first time I met her, she was a manager in a food-processing factory, overseeing a dozen workers in an experimental all-female wing that was part of a nationwide campaign to draw Saudi women into paying jobs. Now, in the lighting assembly plant that had just poached her away, Noof was in charge of ten times that many. Her salary had shot up too.

“They have given me a nickname there,” she said. The women Noof supervises work in an area off-limits to men, but this company’s managerial offices are “mixed,” as the Saudis say: men and women, unrelated by blood or marriage, in close proximity every day. Addressing each other with more than formal courtesies. Attending meetings at the same conference table. Maybe poring side by side over the same document. Saudi Arabia is the most profoundly gender-segregated nation on Earth, and amid the fraught, fragile, extraordinary changes under way in the daily lives of the kingdom’s women—multiple generations, pushed by new labor policies and the encouragements of the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, are now debating what it means to be both truly modern and truly Saudi—this matter of mixing remains very controversial indeed. There are women here who won’t even consider a job that requires it.

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