Despite Saudi activists going to prison for women’s rights, Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) over the weekend opened the door for Saudi women to work as flight attendants for the first time.
The kingdom’s flag carrier clarified in a statement on Friday that Saudi female applicants must be high school graduates between the ages of 20 and 30, with the “required level of the English language,” that their weight be “proportional to the height in accordance with the standards of Saudi Airlines” and that they pass a medical examination.
Saudia is the third-largest carrier in the Middle East in terms of revenue, behind Emirates and Qatar Airways.
Karema Bokhary, an analyst and academic who was a candidate in Riyadh’s 2015 municipal council elections, suggested to The Media Line that in five years or so, Saudi women might have equal rights, as the society would overcome major obstacles in terms of their rights.
“Allowing Saudi women to work as flight attendants forms a very interesting topic. … I’m going to monitor who’s going to apply and their numbers as well,” Bokhary said.
She explained that historically, Saudi society had forbidden females to work in trades such as saleswomen, much less as flight attendants who were somehow considered servants. “They [Saudis] might consider it a further humiliation for Saudi women as they will have to serve, clean and deal with any requests as it will be their job.”
The decision was a good tipping point in the kingdom, as it normalized the job and made it available for all, women and men, Bokhary said. “Also, the payoff for the job is very high, especially since it opens the way for women who are not university graduates to work. At the same time, the decision will enable them to travel.”
There was great interest within the country regarding women working in new fields and their conditions and pay, “as it’s very important to enable women to support themselves and be productive members of society, rather than burdens,” she continued.
Nevertheless, it was important for Saudi Arabia to preserve its identity amid these major changes, and for Saudi women to protect their identities as well, Bokhary said.
“We don’t want to be like the Western world. I think there’s confusion now, especially since the door was opened all of a sudden and some women are using it to become famous, but eventually this bubble will burst,” she said.
She indicated that the movement to support women’s rights started during the reign of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz (2005-2015) and made great strides under the current monarch, King Salman bin Abdulaziz. “And Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has completely opened the way for women and fully supporting Saudi women, and he’s not pulling back. The sky’s the limit for them,” Bokhary said.
A central part of the prince’s Saudi Vision 2030 program to make the kingdom less dependent on oil is for Saudi women to work across a broad spectrum of industries, whereas in the past they were limited to such sectors as education.
Riyadh has publicly committed to increasing the rate of female employment by reforming both the economy and the legal system, Bokhary said.
Hanaa’ Khayari, 20, a student at Riyadh’s King Saud University who works part-time as a hostess in a restaurant, told The Media Line she was grateful to her country and the changes that have been made for women, and that Saudi Vision played a major role in opening opportunities for females.
“I hear that a large number of Saudi women want to work as flight attendants, within certain comfort criteria drawn up by the airline company itself to help women work in a healthy environment,” Khayari said.
For Saudi women to achieve their goals and to be independent within society, they must prove themselves, she said. “It’s a huge opportunity, as women will be able to visit many countries and meet new people, in addition learning new languages and cultures.”
It was important to encourage Saudi women to apply to join the airline’s cabin crews, by focusing on the benefits and the advantages the job would provide females. “For instance, by explaining how women can evolve and grow in the field, she said.
“I thank King Salman and the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the number of girls who will benefit from this great opportunity,” Khayari said.
Prof. Widad al-Jarwan, who specializes in political sociology at King Saud University, told The Media Line people should bear in mind that Saudi women were living normal lives, just like everyone else in the kingdom, as they joined the educational system more than 70 years ago and many had graduated as teachers and physicians.
“And the door was opened for them more than 15 years ago in terms of studying abroad …, the same as for men in all fields,” she said.
The whole world was undergoing many changes and passing new laws, as even in the most developed countries some obstacles stood before women in some matters, and not only in Saudi Arabia, Jarwan explained.
“Now there are new changes and transformations that include radical reform of legal, social and civil affairs in terms of women, under Riyadh Vision,” she continued. “Women are half of society, and the options for empowering women are increasing regarding their type of work and specialization, and obtaining all of their family, social and legal rights.
Women formed the most important part of society, as mothers, wives and the ones raising the next generation, she said. “They protect the country and produce for it.
“Saudi women have exceptional talents and mentality that enable them to combine education, work and their families. Saudi women are strong, capable and productive women for their country,” Jarwan said.
If one compared the Saudi woman to other women around the world with transparency, pragmatism and sincerity, the results would show that females in the kingdom were better off in terms of living conditions, she said. “Education is available to her in all specializations. Work is available for her in all fields. Financial social support is available for her and in exceptional cases as well, such as disability and widowhood.”
Saudi society in general, by virtue of the religious, societal and governmental norms, respected, valued and sympathized with women, Jarwan emphasized. “We have a very, very high percentage of women in education and work and in senior positions. In our country, we are keen to contain all aspects that would put women in the best condition.”
Major steps have been taken in the past three years toward granting equal rights to Saudi women, including lifting the ban on female drivers, and granting them the freedom to leave the home without a male guardian and to attend public events such as soccer matches.
Saudi women also now have the right to, without male guardian permission, register births, marriage or divorce, live apart from their husbands, travel overseas and obtain family records. Moreover, they can register as a co-head of household, along with their husbands.
This article was first published by the Middle East News Service, The Media Line