Contrary to impressions in the West, the subject of working women in Saudi Arabia is not off limits to discussion; in fact, it frequently is the subject of a lively debate in the mass media, with sharp divisions of opinion.

Although the phenomenon is new, Saudi Arabia now has a substantial number of working women. It is estimated that at least 20,000 Saudi women are working in the public sector alone, as teachers, school administrators, nurses, doctors, radio announcers and programmers, and social workers. Saudi women now constitute 8 to 10 percent of workers on the government payroll and contribute 1 percent of the country's gross national product.

In a country where 45 to 55 percent of the work force is made up of foreigners and the government is undertaking a huge development plan, all Saudis agree on the need to reduce the foreign work force. Many Saudi women feel they could replace the labor provided by immigrant female workers.

However, they recognize the problem as complex. While most Saudis want to adopt Western technology, there still is stiff resistance to taking over most Western morals and ways of life. The principle of allowing women to work now is generally accepted, especially among the growing middle class, but there is a division of opinion on what limitations accord with the Saudi concept of Islam.

Both men and women are participating in this debate. Some say that women should be educated but limited thereafter to their "natural functions" -- child rearing and homemaking. In this scheme exceptions would be made for female doctors, teachers and social workers.

Suhailah Zain Abidin, a female journalist, recently pointed out that if married women work, they have to hire foreign female labor to take care of their children, thus removing one of the main arguments in favor of their working. She also maintained that there were too few educated Saudi women at present to make much of a difference in the work force. (Her female opponents facetiously pointed out that she herself now constituted a "working woman" by virtue of her extensive writing.)

Many women, however, want to play a more active role by extending the fields in which women can work and by broadening their horizons. Fatinah Shakir, professor of sociology at King Abdulaziz University at Jeddah, represents this point of view. She claims that her presence as a faculty member in a classroom full of female university students means that "we have passed the stage of discussion of whether Saudi Moslem women have a right to be educated and to work or not!"

She and others have discussed the challenges to working women in ways that would be thoroughly familiar to Western women, addressing such questions as a proper balance between family and work, the need for labor legislation to cover paid maternity leaves, and kindergartens for child care.

In January 1980, Al Rajihi Co., a large firm providing limited banking services, opened its first all-female branch in Riyadh. There was a sharp reaction in the press. Some gave it a very warm welcome; others completely rejected the innovation.

The response from women was more unequivocal. Sulaiman Awaid, a regional director of Al Rajihi, claimed that when news went out of their intention to open a second female branch in Jeddah, the company received more than 150 applications from Saudi women in one week, even though they had not advertised the position publicly. Since then at least six more female banking facilities have opened. Madhawi Hasun, the first woman bank director in Jeddah, and the holder of a BA degree in liberal arts, unabashedly sees herself as a pioneer opening new horizons for all Saudi women.

In addition to banks, women also work in boutiques, beauty salons and tailoring shops, to name just a few all-female businesses. There are many similar projects discussed for the future, including travel agencies, airline ticket counters, restaurants, bookshops and the like. In the face of this rising demand for work, the Saudi Civil Service Council, which advertises for and nominates civil servants, recently created a special department to deal with women.

Just as interesting as the phenomenon of working women are the reasons they give for desiring to work. These, too, will sound familiar in the West. They include economic needs, boredom with staying at home after receiving an education, the desire for independence and the breakdown of the extended family. The latter gives the woman greater ability to make decisions affecting herself without so much interference from relatives outside of her immediate family. There also is the desire to participate in the building of a modern Saudi Arabia.