National Geographic : 2016 Feb
saudi women 127 place first,” she said, eyeballing one of the entrance doors, and strode in. An urban Saudi shopping mall can feel like a panoramic stage in which many tiny dramas peculiar to the modern kingdom are all under way at once. Young women window-shop with cell phones pressed to their ears, angling ice- cream cones or soda drink straws into their mouths beneath their niqabs. Pakistani and Filipino drivers nap in the parking lots or vid- eo call their overseas families, waiting for the women who employ them to emerge. (How do the drivers figure out which black-veiled lady is which? I once asked a Saudi friend. “Shoes and handbags,” she replied.) Inside the relief of reli- able air-conditioning are playgrounds, furniture stores, eyeglasses stores, fitness centers, and supermarkets. There’s no other nexus of Saudi commerce so steadily populated by women, and after a while I found myself studying passing shoes and handbags, imagining them attached to women I was coming to know: the retired pediatrician, the graphic designer, the market checkout clerk, the business entrepreneur, the sociology professor, the lawyer who plays bas- ketball three nights a week and is six feet tall, with a wicked layup. That lawyer, a 30-year-old named Aljawha- rah Fallatah, plays in women-only gyms in girls’ schools or health clubs. Why not outdoors, where the young men go? Because that is where the young men go, and it would be cumbersome to play good basketball in an abaya. The point, Fallatah reminded me after a practice one evening, is that she’s a working attorney in a nation where, until the early 1960s, most girls had nowhere to attend school. A decade ago Saudi women were first allowed to study law. Three years ago the first women received per- mission to work as lawyers rather than just con- sultants. Women now make up more than half of the kingdom’s university students. When King Abdullah started a royal scholarship program for study abroad in 2005, women were included among its initial scholars; as of 2014, more than 35,000 Saudi women were enrolled in foreign undergraduate and graduate programs, with more than half studying in the United States. And Fallatah now makes appearances in court. This is not to suggest any sort of parity for male and female professionals; Saudi women with ad- vanced educations complain of underemploy- ment and frustration in a society only beginning to accept females into high-level jobs. That’s a familiar lament, though, in nations much old- er than Saudi Arabia. “ What we did in ten years is faster than what women in the United States did in a hundred years,” said Nailah Attar, the co-founder of a national initiative called Baladi, which means My Country. “ We are running very fast to change very fast. I think we should slow down a little bit—so people accept it.” Attar, along with other female business and academic leaders from around the kingdom, es- tablished Baladi five years ago to persuade Saudi INVISIBLE WALLS ARE EFFECTIVE TOO With new policies bringing women into some sales jobs, the Families Only sign in this Riyadh mall store tells a lone male shopper he can’t come in. For men unaccompanied by wives or children, close contact with female clerks is still unacceptable in much of Saudi Arabia. Detailed rules specify which products must be sold by which gender: no female clerks for men’s skin care products, for example, and only women may sell lingerie.