The number of Saudis studying in the United States dropped to about 4,000 after the terrorist attacks. But that number has since skyrocketed, reaching 71,000 this fall, including 17,000 women.
“The vision is that these people will come back and fix our problems,” said Fahad al-Fahad, a business consultant in Jiddah who specializes in labor issues. “But you have to find jobs for these educated women. They should be the elite of the society, but they are just sitting at home.”
Job prospects for women are complicated by the kingdom’s severely restrictive religious culture. Under Saudi Arabia’s austere interpretation of Islam, it is considered a violation of God’s will for unrelated men and women to mingle. The most devout Saudi men find it dishonorable for others to even know the name of their wife or mother. They oppose women working or leaving their homes unaccompanied by a male relative. They believe it is an Islamic duty to honor women and protect families by having women stay at home and not be distracted by outside employment.
“Women are like pearls,” said one Saudi man. “We must protect them.”
The Saudi royal family has a long history of undertaking social reforms slowly and cautiously to avoid antagonizing the country’s influential religious leaders. As a result, Saudi society is still segregated by gender to an astonishing degree. Women are rarely seen outside their homes without abayas and veils that cover everything but their eyes. They are not permitted to mingle with men to whom they are not related. Women need permission from a male relative to travel, get medical care and receive other basic government services.
Restaurants have separate entrances and eating areas — one for single men, one for families. Starbucks and other coffee shops have private sitting areas with tall walls to keep women from being seen
by men. Shopping malls have women-only floors. Banks have side-by-side branches — one for women and one for men.
At Princess Nora University, only female teachers are allowed in classrooms. Male professors teach by video link from a remote location; the students can see the professor, but he never sees them.
It is unusual to see a woman working in public anywhere other than in shops, and even then mostly in shops that cater to women by selling clothing, lingerie or groceries. Many of those shops have signs banning men from entering unless accompanied by a female relative.
The segregation of the sexes is enforced by “religious police,” bearded men who roam shopping malls and other public places to ensure that unmarried, unrelated men and women are not mingling.