Alia Banja, a Saudi businesswoman in Jeddah, had had enough of the “general manager” of her company. But rather than simply sack him, she has shut her IT business and is now pressing the Saudi government to abolish a requirement that female-run companies which deal with both sexes have to employ a male general manager.
“My business was growing and I had to protect myself,” said Ms Banja, whose company, 2Thepoint, develops websites and provides information technology services. “I cannot give anyone the power to sign or cancel deals without my knowledge – not when I’m the one bearing all the risk.”
Islamic law permits women to own and operate their own businesses and to maintain financial independence. However, as a result of gender segregation in the conservative kingdom, women cannot enter many government offices and face a risk of detention by the religious police, or mutawa, if they meet male customers.
The trade ministry this month responded to a campaign by women activists to enact a 2004 decree that removes the need to hire a legal representative with power of attorney, but left in place the requirement for a male general manager.
Ms Banja says that sometimes having a man in the office is necessary, particularly when a conservative client asks, “Is there a man around I can talk to?”
Still, she recalls vividly an incident in which her general manager signed a deal that imposed an onerous deadline, exposing her business to legal consequences.
“The problem is the ministry cannot take action without considering the conservative society,” Ms Banja said. “Businesswomen are at risk because they do not have full control over their business and they risk closure for any reason.”
Many female-run businesses suffer exactly that fate because they arouse the suspicion of the mutawa.
Last month, a decree was issued to close all unlicensed women’s gyms. The closure angered women but pleased the clergy, who have often warned of the evil of playing music during aerobics or the lewdness of women seeing each other changing.
While beauty salons are technically outlawed, they operate using a “tailors” licence and offer a clothing section. At the same time they often display posters intended for the mutawa, which indicate that “women who display their beauty to strangers will be cursed”.
But not all businesswomen are equal. Higher-end salons and gyms run by wealthy female owners operate with little hindrance.
“The rules apply only to ordinary women. The religious police wouldn’t dare close the establishments of prominent [or well-connected] women,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, a history professor. “Most reforms are merely window dressing. Clear rules are needed to protect women’s rights and financial independence and eliminate discrimination. How can women invest when they are at the mercy of arbitrary public moods?”
In recent years, Saudi women, with the backing of King Abdullah, have launched businesses in previously forbidden fields such as IT and real estate. The king has taken the unprecedented step of taking Saudi businesswomen with him on foreign trips.
Despite years of campaigning – and a 2008 royal decree lifting a ban on women mixing with men in the workplace – Saudi women still need the consent of their father, husband, brother or even an underage son for travel, access to health care or education.
Nonetheless, women are campaigning for improvements. Basmah Omair from the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce says the next step is to remove the male general manager requirement. The chamber educates women on their legal rights and passes out copies of ministerial decrees so that businesswomen may show them to stubborn bureaucrats.
“The problem is many people, including women, still think women cannot manage their business,” said Ms Banja. “Our primary goal is to create awareness to show ladies that many successful businesswomen have made it, and we do not need to change the religion or sharia to do that.”