Saudi Arabia, 28,000 women respond to an announcement to drive trains

Of Marta Serafini

Spanish company Renfe seeks 30 train drivers for the route between Mecca and Medina while dozens of activists remain in prison

The job posting was intended for 30 train drivers. 28,000 responded. The scenario, as now frequently happens when it comes to women’s rights, is that of Saudi Arabia. In the reign of Mohammed Bin Salman recently there have been restrictions on female work but in Riyadh, evidently, women’s aspirations are not yet satisfied. All the more so when you consider that up in 2018 women in Saudi Arabia were not even allowed to drive.

To find the needle in the haystack, the Spanish railway operator Renfe, author of the job advertisement, has announced that he will evaluate the applications online and that, for the purposes of the selection whose deadline is set at the end of March, the knowledge of the English language. The 30 selected women will drive high-speed trains between the cities of Mecca and Medina after a year of paid training. One route covered by 80 men for now. Until recently, employment opportunities for Saudi women were limited to certain roles such as teachers and health workers, in compliance with segregation rules. Then, female participation in the workforce nearly doubled over the past five yearsreaching 33 percent after Mohammed Bin Salman’s plan to modernize the kingdom and open up the economy, Vision 2030.

Female employment in the private sector increased at twice the rate of the public sector in 2019-2020, with growth of 40% in the hospitality and food industries, 14% in manufacturing and 9% in construction. Result, women are now starting to do jobs once reserved for men and migrant workers. But the percentage of women working in the kingdom is still low, at 34.1% in the first quarter of 2021, and female unemployment well over three times higher than male unemployment, at 21.9%. Mbs’ Saudi Arabia therefore focuses heavily on progress on gender issues also for propaganda purposes – recently women have also been allowed to drive taxis – but remains under observation on the issue of human rights, due to the repression of dissent that has taken dozens of women’s rights activists to jail and for the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As if to say that 30 jobs reserved for women, surely, are not enough to chase away the shadows.

Do not forget, then, as the 30 candidates selected, before accepting the job they will have to ask permission from the closest male relative if still single or from the husband if you are married. Why so still in Saudi Arabia, where the guardian system it does not allow women to make the most important decisions on their own. Including getting on a train to travel. Let alone to guide it.

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