International Business: Traditional protection of women has unintended consequences on business in Saudi Arabia

Published: Friday, July 1 2011 8:38 a.m. MDT

In this March 2009 photo, a Saudi man checks the online petition of a group of Saudi women who were campaigning to bring in female sales personnel at lingerie stores in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Hassan Ammar, Associated Press

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“At the Saudi-owned company where I work, all 2,000-plus employees are male,” explains my U.S. friend, Ed, who currently lives and works in Saudi Arabia. “So there was originally no need to build a women’s restroom in any of our headquarters’ facilities. As times change and international businesswomen from other companies visit our location, they must plan ahead for something as simple as restroom needs.”

As you might expect, business in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia can be very different than in the West due to the many legal and cultural norms affecting women. Expatriate businesses in Saudi Arabia can be aided by a proper understanding of these norms and their advantages and disadvantages.

Many Saudi traditions began with the intent to protect women from physical or moral danger; however, with changing times, these same traditions have unintentionally placed women in difficult situations.

Until recently, the country faced a similar paradox where only men were allowed to sell lingerie. A prohibition against Saudi women co-mingling with men in the workplace was intended to protect women from interacting with strange men, but this even kept women from working in lingerie shops.

Even when most clerks — all men — would usually maintain a distance of five to 10 feet from their female customers, these good intentions have led to the most awkward situations when buying and selling intimate apparel. Imagine the embarrassment involved when a conservative Muslim male clerk tries to help a completely covered Saudi woman in the selection of an undergarment. Fortunately, with a new law that allows women to sell lingerie, this is one area where the country is adapting to help preserve the original intent of making women feel safe and comfortable.

This separation for protection and propriety extends to other areas of Saudi life, too. Ed and his wife, Emily, U.S. citizens, can sit together as a couple in a restaurant, but must do so in a separate “family” section. Unfortunately, some Saudi women may not feel comfortable eating with another couple to whom they are not related. Banks have a separate side door for women’s banking, and even ice cream lines may be divided — even if only by a few feet — into one line for men and another for both women and families.

Saudis also separate grade schools and universities into institutions for only men or only women, which does not seem too foreign since single-gender schools exist worldwide. However, if a male professor teaches a course at a women’s university, he will deliver his lectures via either a video or a one-way mirror so that he does not actually see his female students.

Emily notes that Saudis allow foreigners some flexibility in cultural matters to which they are unaccustomed. She, for example, needs to wear a traditional abaya (robe) in public; however, she is not required to wear a niqāb (veil) or hijab (headscarf). In a public place, a mutawa, or volunteer religious enforcer, may occasionally pass by to “remind” her, “you need a headscarf,” but she and other expatriates are usually excused.

Where women are allowed to work and conduct business, a cultural ban on female drivers has made it difficult to get around in the country. The motivation is for men to protect women from dangerous activities such as driving, but this has the unintended consequence of forcing women to either wait for male family members to chauffeur them or pay to ride in the confined space of a taxi cab with a strange man.

Recent protests against the ban are garnering both domestic and international support, and many Westernized men and women hope this restriction will soon go the way of male-only lingerie clerks.

Simply knowing what to expect may not be enough for Westerners in Saudi Arabia. Even with the proper expectations, reacting appropriately to such strong cultural differences may be difficult. Understanding the motives behind foreign customs helps immensely.

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