Saudi Arabia: buses for women?

The Saudi government's efforts to increase female employment seem to be having the opposite effect in some areas.

Several women-only shops in Jeddah are closing down because there are not enough qualified women to work in them and they are not allowed to employ men, reports:

"Fadyah al-Otaibi, owner of a women’s dress store, said she employed a woman to work in her shop and had to train her for over a month. 'After working for two months, she simply left giving some ridiculous excuse,' she said.

"Al-Otaibi was forced to close her store and now runs her business from home. She claimed that a large number of small entrepreneurs are being forced out of business due to the ministry’s regulations.

"Trader Amal Kateb said that the decision to employ women is a good step, but women cannot work in every sector, especially in places that do not have the necessary security, separate bathrooms or prayer areas. She also said many women were not committed to their jobs and used transportation excuses to not show up for work."

Transportation, however, is not merely an "excuse". The problems that Saudi women face in travelling to and from work are very real and go a long way towards explaining the apparent lack of commitment that employers complain about.

Since women are not allowed to drive, they often end up spending large amounts of their wages on taxis or private male drivers. This has led to renewed calls for a bus system that women can use.

The Saudi Gazette quotes saleswoman Suad Khaled:

“We sometimes finish work at 11pm. Taking a taxi at that time could cost us up to SR50 ($13.50). Our night shifts are costing us SR1,300 ($347) a month one-way. We still can’t drive, so why aren’t there alternatives that are suitable for everyone?”

Rana Al-Zahrani, a marketer at a private company, tells the paper:

“My company pays me SR300 ($80) transport allowance per month and this covers neither a driver’s salary nor the cost of taking taxis. I pay cab drivers up to SR50 a day to get to and from work. 

“The company allowance we are given is only enough for public transport. We are in need of women-only buses to get us around the city. This is the only alternative for not being able to drive.” 

A survey by the Saudi Centre for Studies and Media (SCSM) in 2010 found that women spend about 35% of their income on drivers and taxis, and recommended establishing a system of women-only buses.

Inter-city buses operated by the Saudi Arabian Public Transport Company (SAPTCO) have screened-off sections for female passengers but existing local buses, which are "only used by those in the lowest economic bracket" are considered unsuitable for women.

While many Saudi women seem to welcome the idea of all-female buses (which would still have male drivers), others see it as further entrenching the kingdom's gender apartheid. 

Commenting on the 2010 plan, journalist Sabria Jawhar 

"The centre's proposal ... seeks to develop a 600-bus system within five years that is capable of carrying about 2.5 million women. It also will create jobs for 3,000 male drivers. The bus system will be called Hafilati, or 'My Bus'. I call it Idhlali or 'My Humiliation'. Here’s why:

"First: Hafilati will delay for years the hopes of Saudi women to drive their own cars. There will be no incentive for Saudi society to permit women to drive if a women-only bus system is in place.

"Second: Men will still be driving around women. Jamal Banoun, director of the center, states the obvious: 'The primary aim of this is to provide protection for women against moral problems and sexual harassment that they sometimes face from taxi drivers.' Does Mr Banoun honestly think sexual harassment by drivers will end because women are going to switch from a taxi to a bus?

"Third: What woman in her right mind is going to stand at a bus stop in 45-centigrade heat with her kids and wait for a bus that may or may not show up on time?"

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 10 February 2014