Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Saudi female cashiers fatwa increases women's economic vulnerability

 Female Saudi cashiers are forbidden by recent fatwa. Amer Hilabi / AFP via

It is now prohibited for women to work as cashiers in Saudi Arabia’s shops, according to a fatwa issued by the Senior Board of Ulema at the end of October.

Many Saudis have been expressing their frustration with the ruling, which is intended to prevent the mixing of sexes by preventing women from seeking jobs where they could encounter men.

A conservative preacher called for a boycott of supermarkets employing female cashiers back in August, violating a government restriction on fatwas issued by clerics outside of the Senior Board of Ulema. The board itself has now taken up the idea, stating that  “It is not permitted for a Muslim woman to work in a mixed environment with men who are not related to them, and women should look for jobs that do not lead to them interacting with men which might cause attraction from both sides.”

The Saudi Gazette pointed out the inconsistency of the fatwa with other recent rulings by Saudi clerics. A fatwa approved by Shaykh Bin Baz which stated that “a human being, man or woman, is required to work and practice business,” and that “it is acceptable for women to work for what men require and for men to work for what women require in a way that does not harm either of them.”

A piece in Okaz, translated by Arab News, pointed out the obvious gender discrimination present in the fatwa, asking: “why is it not considered gender mixing when a man sits on the cashier’s desk and sells cheese, beans and olives to women?

“Why is it not permissible when the opposite happens? Why is it considered gender mixing and against Islam when a woman sits at the cashier’s desk selling cheese, beans and olives to men?”

The greatest danger of this fatwa is that many women working in these jobs need the money urgently, as commentators have pointed out. This fatwa makes it even more difficult for them to support themselves economically. As many studies have shown, lack of economic and social opportunities is one of the main driving forces that encourage individuals to join extremist movements. Often these groups offer a sense of purpose and the opportunity to earn money to people who are otherwise unemployed or vulnerable. Several high-profile cases, such as that of Wafa'a AL-Shahri, have shown that Saudi Arabia’s women are far from impermeable to the allure of extremist movements such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Taking more job opportunities away from women can only be a step backwards in the struggle for gender equality and the fight against violent extremism.

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