On Olaya road in central Riyadh, a woman in her mid-twenties covered from head-to-toe in an abaya sits behind glass doors in a spacious seventh-floor office. Sara insists that she not be photographed, but she also tells you there is little else holding her back.
Sara is part of an all-women business processing centre in the heart of Riyadh, run by Tata Consultancy Services. She was one of the first 20 young graduates hired by the Indian firm in January 2014. Today, the centre employs a little over a thousand women, most of them in their mid-20s.
In the strictly conservative country where women are not even allowed to drive, this is the first such private company office where women are working in such large numbers. TCS is also the only foreign employer with an all-women workplace in the kingdom. Usually in Saudi Arabia, women work in gender-segregated places in the government, in education and administration areas.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be visiting the TCS centre, before heading out to meet the Saudi King and the princes.
Till two years ago, Sara, who graduated from King Saud University in finance, knew the accounting jargons in Arabic, not English. “I knew Fatoora, did not know it’s called invoice,” she smiles.
When she told her father about how this was causing her problems at her workplace, Sara remembers, her father approached his friends in finance for help. Within two days, he had a sheaf of papers with all the major accounting words in Arabic and English. When she showed the papers to her superiors, they were thrilled and photocopied the papers and distributed them to her co-workers, says a proud Sara.
TCS says it gets thousands of applications and enquiries from young women looking for a job. Women constitute just 18 per cent of the labour force in Saudi Arabia, up 5 per cent in the last decade or so.
The centre has made the changes necessary to operate in the conservative set-up. For example, only women employees have access to the seventh floor where the centre operates.
Sara as well as her colleagues Amari, Mushael, Malah, all in their 20s, refused to get themselves photographed even for identity cards as these would be prepared and seen by men. So the company put up a biometric system as replacement.
Explaining why the office has a very large reception area, Neeraj Kumar Srivastava, regional director (Saudi Arabia and east Africa) of TCS, says, “For months and days, lots of husbands, fathers, brothers, sit around and want to see how safe the workplace is. We used to have small kids because their mothers were working.”
Says Sara, “When I was offered this job after a full day of interviews, my father came to the office and interviewed the executives of the company. He wanted to know everything about the company, their management. It was only after he was satisfied that I came to work here.”
Having their own money has changed attitudes of many women towards it. “Earlier, it was my dad’s money, and I would splurge. Now, I know it’s hard-earned money. I think before I buy some jewellery,” says a woman employee. Others have started carpooling, though most have drivers.
Dr Amal Jamil Fatani, the head of the centre, who herself worked in the Ministry of Education earlier, says her target is 3,000 women employees in the coming years. “I get emails and CVs from 2,000 to 3,000 women every month,” she says.
As Sara talks about friends approaching her to ask about opportunities, executives attest the women come to the TCS centre not “just to get out of their homes”. “Last year, when there was a townhall meeting, a woman asked the top management how she could become the CEO… It is a very aspirational young society.”
Sara knows marriage is perhaps round the corner. However, with a new-found authority, she says, “I would only marry someone who can support my career.”