Saudi women join workforce of changing kingdom

Asmahan Khaled is one of many women negotiating a new space for themselves in Saudi Arabia's traditional fabric - the workplace.

Steep new taxes and cuts to government subsidies have strained many families' finances, so some are turning to female breadwinners.

Khaled, who lives at home with her family in Riyadh, chose this job in a cosmetics shop because the mostly female clients she'd deal with would ease her family's misgivings.

Working at all would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

"I am very happy for the opportunities we have in the market, as women in Saudi Arabia. I honestly like to be financially independent, avoiding the embarrassment of asking your family... the situation has also become difficult with the prices and taxes increasing. I'm very proud of myself and proud of any woman who is financially independent and works to achieve the things she wishes for."

Women now make up a third of the Saudi workforce, nearly double their presence five years ago.

Under reforms led by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.

Some celebrate the trend, others watch suspiciously, in a conservative kingdom where men still have a tight grip on power.

Because of once-strict gender segregation rules, only a small number of women used to work, mostly in public sector jobs like teaching or healthcare.

Restrictions on mixing, driving and some aspects of the male guardianship system are relaxing somewhat, allowing firms to hire more women, especially in retail and hospitality.

Critics point out though that women are landing jobs traditionally filled by cheaper foreign workers.

And Saudi's gender pay gap is huge. According to NGO Al Nahda, women take home on average half the salary earned by men.

Saudi Arabia is highlighting its progress on women at a time of Western scrutiny of its human rights record, including a crackdown on dissent that ensnared dozens of women's rights activists.

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