In what many be seen as a positive step for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, religious police (the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) have finally permitted women to ride bicycles in public –with restrictions, of course. They must be in the company of a male, wear appropriate clothing, and ride only for recreational purposes; pointedly, using bicycles for transportation is forbidden by the ruling.
As a result, the most freeing aspect of the decision – giving women increased access to participate in the workforce – is conspicuously absent.
At its core, a bicycle is a tool for transport; one that is cheap, efficient, and renders the user independent. Taking this into account, it is unsurprising that their use has been limited. Women in Saudi Arabia cannot work without the express permission of their male guardian and are forbidden from coming into contact with unknown males, restricting their ability to leave the house.
This leaves women’s position in the economy in a highly precarious state, which is normally a shame because countries where women work and have increased control over the family’s finances tend to flourish economically. However, Saudi Arabia is different from most developing countries in that it can afford to keep women from participating in the work force. The abundance of oil keeps the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) high and lessens the need for a large, active and efficient work force.
Saudi Arabia is working on expanding its economy and in particular, strengthening its non-oil economy. Relying on one export is an unstable way to run an economy, particularly one as large as Saudi Arabia’s. Saudi authorities know that oil prices and demand are unreliable, and government revenue is exceedingly important for the economic security of a country that imports the majority of its food, as Saudi does. In order to create a more prosperous and economically stable nation, it will eventually be forced to make use of the large portion of underutilized human capital.
Even universities are trying to get around the restrictions on women. Saudi Arabia houses the world’s largest women-only university, where many students are forced to telecommute when they cannot get to their classes.
The Saudi Ministry of Labor estimates that there are roughly 100,000 Saudi women in the workforce, about 21% of all women in Saudi Arabia. Opportunities for women are expanding, and they are now allowed to become doctors, lawyers, and even own businesses. Private sector workplaces are allowed to mix men and women.
However, if something as simple as getting to work is forbidden, these gains will mean nothing in the long run.
Women-only “cities” (industrial areas) are one solution that the government has come up with to keep women and men separate and yet still allow women a vocation. However, if transportation to these areas is not sufficient and women are not permitted means of transportation on their own, they must rely on male family members to accompany them to and from work.
Some argue that giving permission for women to ride bikes in recreational areas is a baby step – however, it can also be seen as emphasizing the limited extent of women’s freedom in Saudi Arabia and showing just how little autonomy they have.
Last year’s objection to the ban on women drivers made waves, but the use of bicycles is equally important. Most people who do work in Saudi Arabia don’t work far from their homes, and bicycling could be the thing that allows a woman to get to work or in other cases, stay in school.
Women are major contributors to the economy when they are allowed to be. Study after study shows that giving women control of the household income results in more educated children and a healthier family. Indeed, women in the workforce improve a country’s “human capital” – healthcare, education, and other needs that improve the lives of those living in the country.
In particular, women are more likely to invest in their daughters’ education than men are, creating a cycle of economic advancement for women and society as a whole.
The question is, how likely is it that women will be integrated into the Saudi economy? Saudi Arabia is not a developing country that desperately seeks economic growth, a common criteria for a rise in the number of working women. While poverty is high, the government and those in the royal family remain rich thanks to the country’s oil wealth. While the rest of the Arab world was afflicted with Arab Spring protests and rapid change, Saudi Arabia paid off unhappy portions of the population to prevent similar protests, or simply out-powered them, as it did with its small Shia population. As long as Saudi Arabia can afford its current economic arrangement, the situation for women will remain the same.
Sophie Jacobs has a BS in economics and mathematics from the University of Washington and an MA in Middle East Studies from Tel Aviv University. She works as an analyst writing about Middle East economics, finance, and business.
This article was originally posted on the WIIS-Israel blog on April 10, 2013.