Thursday, February 18, 2010

Saudi Women's Work: Domestic Artists to Working Artisans

In Saudi Arabia only about 5% of women work. This includes all women, those with and without higher education. The reasons for this low number are historical, cultural, societal, and religious, all as understood within the Saudi context. However, as the Chinese saying "Women hold up half  the sky" captures well, women constitute approximately  half the population and their contribution helps hold up half the potential of  a country. Countries with low rates of women in the workforce tend also to have lower rates of achievement, usually economically but also socially, educationally, and in terms of human rights.

Gold thread embroidered trim, Saudi Arabia

While in Saudi it may not seem that the economics are as important, in fact they are for women and families in any number of situations: where the woman has the potential for a satisfying high earning career; where the patriarch is unable to work temporarily or permanently due to illness; where a woman is widowed or divorced and lacks family support, or the family is struggling financially; where the number of children outstrips the father's earning capacity; where a woman is "unmarriageable".

There are other initiatives to increase the number of women in the workforce, including by Ministerial decree, as with the one to replace male salesclerks, usually foreigners on contract and earning lower wages, with Saudi women, as described in the 2 posts on the lingeries buying boycott, here and here . Some careers are more open to women than others, like medicine. Some jobs are more open to women than others. While the former tend to be male-dominated professions, the latter tend to be female-dominated unremunerated work, like housework (maid), and child care (nanny).

Palestinian Embroidery, Jordan

One initiative that has been successful elsewhere, including Palestine (where embroidery became part of the intifada), and South Asia  through the Grameen Bank, to mention but 2, is to turn women's domestic arts of weaving, knitting, sewing, embroidery, quilting, and other textile creations into remunerated work as artisans or copy artists. This is a traditional sphere for women's work, even in developed countries where it is still mainly women who work the sewing machines in factory settings, or do the handcrafted specialty items. Canada's poorer Maritime regions developed the highly successful boutique quilted fashions Suttles and Seawinds; the First Nations Peoples, men and women, have established craft cooperatives which preserved their heritage, developed their arts, and was one of the first steps towards band economic self-sufficiency, instead of total reliance on social assistance which has had deleterious effects.

One initiative in Saudi Arabia, which was developed to give a skill and employment to deaf women, is the Mansoojat Foundation Workshop, teaching and selling embroidered items based on traditional tribal dress in Saudi Arabia. The following article by Assia  Kashoggi, which I have interspersed with her pictures from the Mansoojat Foundation Workshop, explains the purpose, activities, and structure of the workshop.

Mansoojat Foundation Workshop

Womens Welfare Center, Jeddah

The Mansoojat Foundation workshop was established in mid 2000 at the Women's Welfare Centre. It was a JISH (Jeddah Institute of Speech and Hearing) initiative to help women who had hearing and speech impairments find employment.

The Women's Welfare Centre provides Mansoojat with a room for free, and JISH covers the expense of hiring a teacher and transportation. The Mansoojat workshop is open 3 times a week from 4pm to 7pm and runs under the supervision and coordination of Salma Alireza who visits weekly or fortnightly. The main skill the women acquire is embroidery; they learn the exact stitching and designs of the various tribes of Saudi Arabia.

The Mansoojat Foundation provides all the supplies needed (materials, fabrics and threads). The women are paid according to the size of the piece they make and their skill level. The workshop is currently a mixture of levels ranging from those who have mastered the embroidery techniques to beginners.

The finished pieces are subsequently used by the Mansoojat Foundation designers on a wide range of items: art work, hand towels, place mats, napkins, abayas and tarhas (robe-like over-garments and scarves worn in Saudi Arabia), necklaces, bracelets, shawls... etc.

The women at the workshop also receive a % of the sale price of items sold with their embroidery pieces as a bonus. Some of the women who have gotten married or who are not able to come to the workshop work at home and bring in their pieces from time to time. Some of the women are still at school and will come on Wednesdays then take away pieces to embroider at home during the weekend. The total number of women who are part of the workshop constantly fluctuates, never falling below 8, with a maximum of 22.

The workshop has become much more than just a means of earning some money for the women; they enjoy themselves immensely seeing it as a place where they can get together to work, learn new skills, produce beautiful pieces of work demonstrating their own talents and efforts, as well as and form solid friendships with their peers. Once a month Mansoojat gives them the day off to use the recreational facilities of the centre.

--Assia Khashoggi

An excellent video of the Foundation's participation in the Jeddah Economic Forum, Jeddah International Conference and Exhibition Center, Saudi Arabia, February 2008 can be viewed here.

The same foundation has a Museum of Saudi Arabian Costume online, including exemplars like this one.

Najd, Central Region and Eastern Region thobe of fine Indian silk embroidered with sequins and gold thread. The sleeves are voluminous and are brought around to cover the head.

The overall objective of the Foundation is described on its home page:

The Mansoojat Foundation

The Mansoojat Foundation is a UK registered charity founded by a group of Saudi women with a passionate interest in the traditional ethnic textiles and costumes of Arabia.

Where We Go In The Future Is Determined
By Where We Have Been In The Past.

A non profit organisation, the Mansoojat Foundation's mission is to revive and preserve the traditional ethnic designs and costumes of the various regions of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; to promote and conduct academic research important for the understanding of the history and culture of the region, and to raise public awareness for the appreciation of this unique heritage.

UK Charity Registration No. 1115379

Recommend this website to friend

A selection of my favourite costumes and captions from the site's Costumes section follows:

Qassim thick wool woman's aba (cloak) embroidered with gold thread and having elaborate gold thread tassels. This type of aba is for the bride to wear on her wedding night.

Najd and Central Region thobe made of fine tulle with two silk side panels and multicoloured sequined sleeve borders. The yoke is embroidered with gold and silver threads.

Hijaz outfit comprising the inner silk zaboon under the fine organza thobe. Casual day outfits were made in the same way except that the fabric was plain or printed cotton.

Harb [tribe of Al-Madinah] thobe in blue with alternating green on the sleeve panels, and patchwork on the shoulders. The burqu ' (face mask) is made of yellow silk and the front is embroidered with real pearls.

Hijaz ensemble with the inner fitted zaboon embroidered in a floral design with gold thread and small sequins. The outer thobe is made of a sheer linen-like fabric.

Asir [southern Hijaz region] bright floral printed thobe with the traditional cut and decorative stitching along the front and sides. Traditionally, men embroidered the women's clothes in Asir.

Bani Malik [tribe of the southern Hijaz] thobe embroidered predominantly in yellow. Small glass beads decorate the yoke and surround the embroidered panels. The qarqoosh (hat) is also beaded.

Among the Foundation's research endeavours are studies on tribal costumes, as detailled in this article Tribal Dress of Saudi Arabia by Jennifer Wearden. Indeed, the Costumes section provides details, in addition to the rich captions, that add information about tribal characteristics, history, trade routes affecting textiles, and social mores reflected in the clothing of men, women, and children. These "side bars" are themselves well worth the read, especially if you have an interest--intellectual, familial, or other-- in a particular tribe. Notably, a man is shown demonstrating the "Dress of a Bani Sa'ad Lady" in one series of  8 photos, while in another series of 11 photos, a (?non-tribal) woman serves as the model.

Dress of a Bani Sa'ad Lady

The site's glossary of textile and dress terms is highly informative and interesting on its own, and helps to better appreciate Arabian clothing past and present.Its bibliography is a researcher or interested person's dream.

Needless to say, I commend the Foundation , its goals, and achievements, and recommend its website, highly.

What are your impressions of these types of initiatives to increase work for women?
How important is it, in your view, to preserve the tribal heritages of  Saudi Arabian in this form?
Do you have direct experience with, or knowledge of, similar initiatives?
Are you already familiar with tribal clothing traditions from personal or research experience?
Is there any meaningfulness in the fact that a minority of tribal costumes on the site seem to include a face veil?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?


Susanne said...

I think it's a great idea to give women the opportunity to learn skills and at the same time preserve the heritages of KSA in textile form. I enjoyed seeing the variety of colors and styles in the thobes pictured. I'm going back through them trying to pick a favorite....hmmmm. They are definitely colorful - especially that pink floral one!

One of the most regal looking is the one made of "fine tulle with two silk side panels and multicoloured sequined sleeve borders." I like the red and black together.

The Palestinian embroidery (Jordan) is lovely.

Thanks for sharing about this!

Anthrogeek10 said...

This was neat. I enjoyed this post and think it is wonderful that women who are traditionally marginalized (deaf) there get an opportunity to bond with others, make money, etc. However, I would like to see these women in mainstream society..although that is not an option at this time, I hope it will be in the future.


ellen557 said...

This is a great post! I agree with Susanne, this hits a lot of birds with the one stone and seems to be a very culturally/socially appropriate way of providing women with employment opportunities.

I remember when I was in Bahrain I bought a few traditional dresses but I'd like so much more to buy one made individually. I hope there is something like this in the EP, then maybe I'll get the chance to check it out in a few years.

Chiara said...

Susanne--thank you for your lovely comment. I am glad you enjoyed the post and the pictures--it is hard to pick a favourite! I am sure Syria has its own traditional textiles as well! :)

Anthrogeek--thank you for your comment, and interest in this post. I agree that women in such situations should be mainstreamed, and to me this is an excellent start. With their skill acquisition they can work in independent businesses of their own, even if a mahrem must sign the business papers for them. They could form private businesses as a group, and employ others etc. Let's hope it works out that way!

Ellen--glad you enjoyed it, and I agree with your hitting a number of birds with one culturally appropriate stone. Preservation of one's heritage is even more important in times of rapid transition, and doesn't need to be retrograde. It can be a way of discovering and preserving previously ignored or taken for granted aspects of a culture. Much of the initial feminist entreprise in the West was preoccupied with revisiting cultural norms and understanding and valuing women's roles, eg in the literary canon, other arts, history and philosophy, all of which were expanded to privilege more women's works, and to value their contribution. Adapting women's unpaid work into a business is a main driver of the economic advancement of women in other settings.

I'm sure you will be able to find something similar in the EP--or help create one!!!

Hmmmm a big niqab question opening, and no one is going there... LOL :)

Maha Noor Elahi said...

Interesting post, Chiara!
this is an amazing idea, especially for those who cannot afford to get a good education degree. However, most young Saudi women now prefer to have more modern jobs. The problem in Saudi Arabia is not just the unemployment of women; it is basically the unemployment of men.
I know many young women who prefer to stay at home, sleep, and enjoy DJ parties, but luckily they are decreasing these days. No body is preventing women from work and the lingerie issue is not a religious issue at all; it is rejected because it affects the dominating businessmen interests.
The other sad side of the problem is that many private companies refuse to hire Saudis and hire non Saudis because they are paid less or because they are more prestigious!
It's all about money dear...religion and culture are totally innocent this time :)
Miss your blog..

Chiara said...

Maha--thanks for your comment, and raising several key points. Indeed although outsiders are mainly unaware, Saudi does have problems with unemployment, and even poverty. Both men and women need expanded employment opportunities for both jobs and careers.
It is true that until a business perceives a financial interest in an action it is unlikely to be taken, as are other more altruistic actions until they can have a business benefit attached, eg tax write off, marketing advantage, etc.

A boycott in essence is about making it all about the money. Especially where private businesses are involved. However, boycotts are longer term in the building, and having an impact--this is a start though.

In other places the government often becomes a leader in legislating equitable labour laws, hiring practices, and serves as the model for integrating women, minorities, the physically or mentally challenged, and the GLBTQ.

In fact, in its own way Saudi has tried to do this with legislating women salesclerks for women's lingerie shops. To be effective though, this legislation must be put into practice and enforced. Let's hope that is part of what happens in the future.


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