MAKKAH: Seven women sit in front of computer screens fielding distress calls from across Mecca ahead of the annual Haj pilgrimage this week, in a first for Saudi Arabia as it tries to expand participation in the workforce.

The seven, almost all wearing the black niqab over their faces, form the first women’s section of an emergency call centre in the kingdom, which has begun offering more education and employment opportunities to the half of the population that has traditionally stayed at home.

The women verify a caller’s location and request, which could be related to fire, crime, illness or a traffic accident, before passing the information on to first responders.

In the conservative kingdom, that’s a big shift.

“Saudi women are present in multiple fields, so they can also be present in the security sector,” 31-year-old Baara al-Shuwaibi, who studied English at a Makkah university, told Reuters, headphones hanging over her ears.

The women all speak English and received training before starting their jobs in recent weeks. Dozens of men sit in a separate room doing the same work. The National Operations Centre in Makkah launched two years ago, becoming the first in the kingdom to unify government response services. There are plans for similar sites in Riyadh, Medina and the Eastern Province.

This is the first year the women’s section will operate during the Haj, which is expected to attract about two million Muslims from around the world for a week of sacred rituals starting on Wednesday.

Major General Abdel Rahman al-Saleh, who runs the operations centre, said it receives around 65,000 calls each day during Haj, 50 per cent more than normal. “We consider the women’s section a step forward to demonstrate that women can work in any place and in any field,” Saleh said.

There are plans to increase the number of women and offer them advanced training, he said.

Published in Dawn, August 30th, 2017

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