If nothing else, the keynote speech given by Reema Bint Bandar al Saud of Saudi Arabia at the South By Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, on Saturday afternoon was a bundle of contradictions.
On one hand, the former chief executive of luxury retailer Alfa, Intl. was there pushing an agenda of empowering women in Saudi Arabia. On the other, members of the media were given strict instructions ahead of time that they weren’t allowed to photograph her directly. All photos had to be taken in profile.
The restrictions on photography, and al Saud’s use of a headscarf, is something that seems largely due to the social pressures put on Saudi women. Fast Company Editor Bob Safian, who interviewed the royal family member for the event, said that when the two of them had lunch in Texas the previous day, she chose not to cover her head. It’s something she said he does in public, but not in private.
When it comes to wearing a burqa to cover her face, al Saud said that’s something she choses not to do. “I don’t cover my face. I never have. It’s something I’ve never done,” she explained. “But, at long as it’s somebody’s choice to dress the way they’re dressing, I respect their choice.”
Al Saud, whose father served as the ambassador to the United States for over two decades, attended college in Washington, D.C.. A serial entrepreneur, al Saud founded high-end handbag producer Baraboux (where she also serves as creative director), the private equity firm Reemiyah, and a women’s spa in Riydah called Yibreen.
A long-time advocate for expanding the role of women in the Saudi economy, al Saud drew sharp criticism from religious conservatives for hiring female clerks at the Riyadh location Harvey Nichols, a U.K.-based department store chain managed by Alfa.
A few years ago, Saudi Arabia dramatically altered the rules governing women in the workplace. Previously, women could work exclusively in all-female establishments—places where men weren’t just prohibited from entering, but also couldn’t even have a line of sight into. The result, al Saud recalled, were workplace environments for women that were physically cloistered and not particularity pleasant spaces.
With the law change, women were allowed to be employed in mixed-gender establishments, but only under a specific set of rules. For example, they were allowed to work in retail, but not in direct sales or as a cashiers.
When al Saud took over operation of Saudi Arabia’s Harvey Nichols location before the rule change, all of the employees were men. After the switch, however, the store started employing women in a specifically targeted way. She hired a group of female makeup artists who were able to take Harvey Nichols’s female customers into private rooms and let them try on makeup before buying. Sales at the store’s makeup counters skyrocketed because female customers now felt more comfortable making purchases.
One problem al Saud ran into was the cultural taboo against female drivers. While not being able to drive in the country is an inconvenience for al Saud, she said it was a nearly insurmountable roadblock for her female employees, who, often making entry-level salaries, couldn’t afford to pay for a chauffeur to shuttle them from home to work and then back again. Al Saud responded by offering travel stipends to her female employees to ensure they were able to make it to work on time.
She called the reaction of her male employees when women came into the workforce at her company “horrific” because the law didn’t just expand the opportunities for Saudi women in the workplace, it also mandated that certain industries hire specific numbers of women. At Harvey Nichols, that meant that al Saud had to replace some of her male workers with female ones.
“If you can imagine a community so used to women not participating that suddenly has women thrust on them,” she said.
In addition to the drastic cultural change, many of the men thought they would soon be replaced by women. And, in many cases, they were right. She said that it was particularly difficult at Harvey Nichols because the vast majority of her employees weren’t Saudi nationals; they were immigrants from places like Syria, Jordan, or Palestine, and often didn’t have a local network of connections to help find new places of employment. As a result, al Saud reached out into her own network of fellow business owners to find new jobs for the displaced men.
However, al Saud noted that shift may have been a little too much too fast for the deeply conservative country. She pointed out that the law is now shifting again so women are not allowed to work in places where there is a mixed-gender workforce. It’s turing into a system where there can be all-male employee places or all-female employee places, but either of those types of places could serve customers of both genders
“I don’t view this as a step back,” she insisted. “I view this is a way to get more women into the workplace.”
On top of her experiences working to get more women into the Saudi workforce, al Saud also spoke of her ongoing project of promoting breast cancer awareness. Al Saud’s mother founded a breast cancer organization in Saudi Arabia called Zahra Breast Cancer Association. She joined the organization after one of her best friends was diagnosed with the disease.
Al Saud noted that Saudi Arabia has a serious issue with women getting diagnosed very late in the disease’s development, when treatment becomes more difficult and the rates of survival dip considerably. There’s a problem with women only getting themselves tested after the cancer has already progressed—especially outside of major cities where men often have multiple wives and many women may be afraid of speaking up about their illness due to fears of being, as al Saud termed it, “replaced.”
Next on al Saud’s plate is a gathering of 10,000 women in Saudi Arabia to make a giant “awareness ribbon” about breast cancer. It’s going to be the largest gathering of women every in the country, she said. There will be no no men in attendance. Her organization has partnered with a litany of other organizations, so the event will also feature a retail area with female fashion entrepreneurs selling their wares along with stations for infectious disease and mental-health screenings.
Al Saud said she had done a similar event a number of years ago on a smaller scale and was surprised at the relatively small amount of pushback she received—only a couple angry phone calls left on the organization’s voicemail.
While al Saud has been regularly lauded for her work in promoting women’s rights, she insists that she’s far from alone. What she’s done is largely a result of the work of others to create major changes that are happening, albeit gradually, across Saudi society as a whole. “I’m just a small character in a really big game,” she said.
Yet, there’s still a long way to go. A 2013 Thomson Reuters survey of 226 gender experts labeled Saudi Arabis as the third-worst country for women out of 22 Arab states.
Photo by Marcello Casal Jr./Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0 br)