Women's rights in Saudi Arabia

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia

Manal al-Sharif, a women's rights activist from Saudi Arabia who helped start a women's right to drive campaign in 2011.
Gender Inequality Index[1]
Value 0.284 (2014)
Rank 56th out of 157
Maternal mortality (per 100,000) 12 (2015)[2]
Women in parliament 19.9% (2014)
Females over 25 with secondary education 60.5% (2014)
Women in labour force 13% (2015)[3][4]
Global Gender Gap Index[5]
Value 0.583 (2016)
Rank 141st out of 144
This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
Saudi Arabia
Basic Law
Foreign relations

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia are limited in comparison to many of its neighbors. The World Economic Forum 2015 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 134th out of 145 countries for gender parity.[6] All women, regardless of age, are required to have a male guardian. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving. Saudi women constitute 13% of the country's native workforce as of 2015.[3][4]

However, women's status has changed in recent decades. Women were previously forbidden from voting or being elected to political office, but in 2011 King Abdullah let women vote 2015 local elections, as well as be appointed to the Consultative Assembly.[7] More university graduates in Saudi Arabia are Saudi women than men,[8] and female literacy is estimated to be 91% (though lower than male literacy) far higher than just 40 years ago. The average age at first marriage among Saudi females in the kingdom is 25 years.[9][10][11]

Many conservative Saudi women do not support loosening traditional gender roles and restrictions, on the grounds that Saudi Arabia is the closest thing to an "ideal and pure Islamic nation," and under threat from "imported Western values".[12]

Among the factors that define rights for women in Saudi are government laws, the Hanbali and Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam, and traditional customs of the Arabian peninsula.[13]


Gender roles in Saudi society come from Sharia (Islamic law). Sharia law has derivatives from the Quran and hadith. In Saudi culture, the Sharia is interpreted according to a strict Sunni form known as the way of the Salaf (righteous predecessors) or Wahhabism. The law is mostly unwritten, leaving judges with significant discretionary power which they usually exercise in favor of tribal traditions.[14]

The variation of interpretation often leads to controversy. For example, Sheikh Ahmad Qassim Al-Ghamdi, chief of the Mecca region's mutaween (religious police), has said prohibiting ikhtilat (gender mixing) has no basis in Sharia.[15][16] Meanwhile, Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak, another prominent cleric, issued a fatwa (religious opinion) that proponents of ikhtilat should be killed.[17]

According to the Encyclopedia of Human Rights, two "key" conservative Islamic "concepts" that curtail women's rights in Saudi are

"It's the culture, not the religion," is a Saudi saying.[19] At least according to some (Library of Congress) customs of the Arabian peninsula also play a part in women's place in Saudi society. The peninsula is the ancestral home of patriarchal, nomadic tribes, in which separation of women and men and namus (honour) are considered central.[13] Many Saudis do not see Islam as the main impediment to women's rights. According to one female journalist; “If the Quran does not address the subject, then the clerics will err on the side of caution and make it haram (forbidden). The driving ban for women is the best example.”[15] Another (Sabria Jawhar) believes that “if all women were given the rights the Quran guarantees us, and not be supplanted by tribal customs, then the issue of whether Saudi women have equal rights would be reduced.”[20][21]

Asmaa Al-Muhhamad, editor for Al Arabiya, points out that women in all other Muslim nations, including those in the Gulf area, have far more political power than Saudi women. The 2013 Global Gender Gap Report ranked several Muslim nations, such as Kyrgyzstan, Gambia, and Indonesia significantly higher than Saudi Arabia for women's equality.[22] However it moved up four places from the last report due to an increase in the percentage of women in parliament (from 0% to 20%), (based on the introduction of a new quota for women in parliament) and had the biggest overall score improvement relative to 2006 of any country in the Middle East.[6]

Saudis often invoke the life of Prophet Muhammad, to prove that Islam allows strong women. His first wife, Khadijah, was a powerful businesswoman who employed him and then initiated the marriage proposal on her own.[23] Another wife, Aisha commanded an army at the Battle of Bassorah and is the source of many hadiths.[24][25] Muhammad ended female infanticide and established the first rights for women in Arab culture. He reportedly told Muslim men, "You have rights over your women, and your women have rights over you."[26]

Enforcement and custom vary by region. Jeddah is relatively permissive. Riyadh and the surrounding Najd region, origin of the House of Saud, have stricter traditions.[27] Prohibitions against women driving are typically unenforced in rural areas.[28]

Enforcement of the kingdom's strict moral code, including hijab and separation of the sexes, is often handled by the Mutaween (also Hai'a) -- a special committee of Saudi men sometimes called "religious police". Mutaween have some law enforcement powers, including the power to detain Saudis or foreigners living in the kingdom for doing anything deemed to be immoral. While the anti-vice committee is active across the kingdom, it is particularly active in Riyadh, Buraydah and Tabuk.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution and subsequent Grand Mosque Seizure in Saudi Arabia caused the government to implement stricter enforcement of sharia. Saudi women who were adults before 1979 recall driving, inviting non-mahram (unrelated) men into their homes (with the door open), and being in public without an abaya (full-body covering) or niqab (veil).[15][29] The subsequent September 11 attacks against the World Trade Center in 2001, on the other hand, are often viewed as precipitating cultural change away from strict fundamentalism.[20][24][30]

The government under King Abdullah was considered reformist. It opened the country's first co-educational university, appointed the first female cabinet member, and passed laws against domestic violence. Women did not gain the right to vote in 2005, but the king supported a woman's right to drive and vote. Critics say the reform was far too slow, and often more symbolic than substantive.[30][31][32] Activists, such as Wajeha Al-Huwaider, compare the condition of Saudi women to slavery.[33]

Limits on support for reform

According to the Economist, a rare 2006 Saudi government poll found that over 80% of Saudi women do not think women should drive or should work with men.[34] However, this is directly contradicted by a 2007 Gallup poll which found that 66% of Saudi women and 55% of Saudi men agreed that women should be allowed to drive.[35] Moreover, that same poll found that more than 8 in 10 Saudi women (82%) and three-quarters of Saudi men (75%) agree that women should be allowed to hold any job for which they are qualified outside the home.[35]

A poll conducted by a former lecturer Ahmed Abdel-Raheem in 2013 to female students at Al-Lith College for Girls at Um al-Qura University, Mecca, found that 79% of the participants in the poll did not support the lifting of the driving ban for women. One of the students who took part in the poll commented: "In my point of view, female driving is not a necessity because in the country of the two holy mosques every woman is like a queen. There is (someone) who cares about her; and a woman needs nothing as long as there is a man who loves her and meets her needs; as for the current campaigns calling for women's driving, they are not reasonable. Female driving is a matter of fun and amusement, let us be reasonable and thank God so much for the welfare we live in."[36]

Abdel-Raheem conducted another poll to 8,402 Saudi women, which found that 90% of women support the male guardianship system.[37] Another poll conducted by Saudi students found that 86% of Saudi women do not want the driving ban to be lifted.[36] A Gallup poll in 2006 in eight predominantly Muslim countries found that only in Saudi Arabia did the majority of women not agree that women should be allowed to hold political office.[38]

Saudi women supportive of traditional gender roles (many of them well educated, "sometimes downright aggressive" and including "award-winning scientists, writers and college professors"[12]) insist that loosening the ban on women driving and working with men is part of an onslaught of Westernized ideas to weaken Islam and that Saudi Arabia is uniquely in need of conservative values because it is the center of Islam.[12] Some Saudi female advocates of government reform reject foreign criticism of Saudi limitations upon rights, for "failing to understand the uniqueness of Saudi society."[12][17][30]

Journalist Maha Akeel, a frequent critic of her government's restrictions on women, states that Westerner critics do not understand Saudi. "Look, we are not asking for ... women's rights according to Western values or lifestyles ... We want things according to what Islam says. Look at our history, our role models."[24] According to former Arab News managing editor John R. Bradley, Western pressure for broadened rights is counterproductive, particularly pressure from the United States, given the "intense anti-American sentiment in Saudi Arabia after September 11."[39]

Male guardians

Under Saudi law, all females must have a male guardian (wali), typically a father, brother, husband or uncle(mahram). Girls and women are forbidden from traveling, conducting official business, or undergoing certain medical procedures without permission from their male guardians.[40]

The guardian has duties to, and rights over, the woman in many aspects of civic life. A United Nations Special Rapporteur report states:

legal guardianship of women by a male, is practised in varying degrees and encompasses major aspects of women's lives. The system is said to emanate from social conventions, including the importance of protecting women, and from religious precepts on travel and marriage, although these requirements were arguably confined to particular situations.[14]

Depending on the guardian, women may need their guardian's permission for:

The official law, if not the custom, requiring a guardian's permission for a woman to seek employment was repealed in 2008.[17][22][41][42][43][44]

In 2012 the Saudi Arabian government implemented a new policy to help with the enforcement on the traveling restrictions for women. Under this new policy, Saudi Arabian men receive a text message on their mobile phones whenever a woman under their custody leaves the country, even if she is traveling with her guardian. Saudi Arabian feminist activist Manal al-Sharif commented that "[t]his is technology used to serve backwardness in order to keep women imprisoned".[45]

Some examples of the importance of permission are

A situation where a male guardian (wali) is thought to have abused his power to approve his daughter's marriage for personal gain is a 2008 case were a father married off his eight-year-old daughter to a 47-year-old man to have his debts forgiven.[49] The man's wife sought an annulment to the marriage, but the Saudi judge refused to grant it.[50]

Guardianship requirements are not written law. They are applied according to the customs and understanding of particular officials and institutions (hospitals, police stations, banks, etc.). Official transactions and grievances initiated by women are often abandoned because officers, or the women themselves, believe they need authorization from the woman's guardian. Officials may demand the presence of a guardian if a woman cannot show an ID card or is fully covered. These conditions make complaints against the guardians themselves extremely difficult.[14]

Some female Saudis consider male guardianship their "right". In a 2010 interview with the New York Times, Noura Abdulrahman, a female employee of the Saudi Ministry of Education, defended male guardianship as providing protection and love.[17]

In Saudi culture, women have their integrity and a special life that is separate from men. As a Saudi woman, I demand to have a guardian. My work requires me to go to different regions of Saudi Arabia, and during my business trips I always bring my husband or my brother. They ask nothing in return—they only want to be with me.

The image in the West is that we are dominated by men, but they always forget the aspect of love. People who aren’t familiar with Shariah often have the wrong idea. If you want stability and safety in your life, if you want a husband who takes care of you, you won’t find it except in Islam.

In 2008, Rowdha Yousef and other Saudi women launched a petition “My Guardian Knows What's Best for Me," which gathered over 5,000 signatures. The petition defended the status quo and requested punishment for activists demanding "equality between men and women, [and] mingling between men and women in mixed environments".[17]

In 2016, Saudis filed the first petition to end male guardianship, signed by over 14,500 people; women's rights supporter Aziza Al-Yousef delivered it in person to the Saudi royal court.[51]

Liberal activists reject guardianship, loving or not, as demeaning to women. They object to being treated like "subordinates" and "children."[20][24] They point to women whose careers were ended by the guardians, or who lost their children because of a lack of custody rights. In a 2009 case, a father vetoed several of his daughter's attempts to marry outside their tribe, and sent her to a mental institution as punishment.[52] The courts recognize obedience to the father as law, even in cases involving adult daughters.[53] Saudi activist Wajeha Al-Huwaider agrees that most Saudi men are caring, but "it's the same kind of feeling they have for handicapped people or for animals. The kindness comes from pity, from lack of respect.”[17] She compares male guardianship to slavery:[33]

The ownership of a woman is passed from one man to another. Ownership of the woman is passed from the father or the brother to another man, the husband. The woman is merely a piece of merchandise, which is passed over to someone else—her guardian ... Ultimately, I think women are greatly feared. When I compare the Saudi man with other Arab men, I can say that the Saudi is the only man who could not compete with the woman. He could not compete, so what did he do with her? ... The woman has capabilities. When women study, they compete with the men for jobs. All jobs are open to men. 90% of them are open to men. You do not feel any competition ... If you do not face competition from the Saudi woman ... you have the entire scene for yourself. All positions and jobs are reserved for you. Therefore, you are a spoiled and self-indulged man.

The absurdity of the guardianship system, according to Huwaider, is shown by what would happen if she tried to remarry: "I would have to get the permission of my son."[24]

The Saudi government has approved international and domestic declarations regarding women's rights, and insists that there is no law of male guardianship. Officially, it maintains that international agreements are applied in the courts. International organizations and NGOs are skeptical. "The Saudi government is saying one thing to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva but doing another thing inside the kingdom," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.[54] Saudi interlocutors told a UN investigator that international agreements carry little to no weight in Saudi courts.[14] According to Riyadh businesswoman Hoda al-Geresi, the government has been slow to implement a 2004 resolution to increase employment and protect against abusive guardians.[22]


Male guardianship is closely related to namus (or "sharaf" in a Bedouin context), roughly translated as "honor". It also carries connotations of modesty and respectability. The namus of a male includes the protection of the females in his family. He provides for them, and in turn the women's honor (sometimes called "ird") reflects on him. Namus is a common feature of many different patriarchal societies.

Since the namus of a male guardian is affected by that of the women under his care, he is expected to control their behavior. If their honor is lost, in the eyes of the community he has lost control of them. Threats to chastity, in particular, are threats to the namus of the male guardian.[55]

Namus is associated with honor killing. If a man loses namus because of a woman in his family, he may attempt to cleanse his honor by punishing her. In extreme cases, the punishment can be death. The suspicion alone of a woman's wrongdoing can be enough for her to be subject to violence in the name of honour.[56]

In 2007, a young woman was murdered by her father for chatting with a man on Facebook. The case attracted a lot of media attention. Conservatives called for the government to ban Facebook, because it incites lust and causes social strife by encouraging gender mingling.[57][58]

Separation of the sexes

Hijab and dress code

A Saudi woman wearing a traditional niqab.

A hijab is a traditional Islamic norm whereby women are required "to draw their outer garments around them (when they go out or are among men)" and dress in a modest manner.[59] Saudi Arabia is different from many Islamic societies in the extent of the covering that it considers Islamically correct hijab (everything except the hands and eyes) and the fact that covering is enforced by Mutaween or religious police.

Among non-mahram men, women must cover the parts of the body that are awrah (not meant to be exposed). In much of Islam, a women's face is not considered awrah. In Saudi Arabia and some other Arab states, all of the body is considered awrah except the hands and eyes. Accordingly, most women are expected to wear the hijab (head covering), a full black cloak called an abaya, and a face-veil called niqab. Many historians and Islamic scholars hold that the custom, if not requirement, of the veil predates Islam in parts of the region. They argue that the Quran was interpreted to require the veil as part of adapting it to tribal traditions.[60] [61][62][63]

Traditionally, women's clothing must not reveal anything about her body. It is supposed to be thick, opaque, and loose. It should not resemble the clothing of men (or non-Muslims).[64]

The strictness of the dress code varies by region. In Jeddah, for example, many women go out with their faces uncovered; Riyadh however, is more conservative. Some shops sell designer abayas that have elements such as flared sleeves or a tighter form. Fashionable abayas come in colors other than black, and may be decorated with patterns and glitter. According to one designer, abayas are "no longer just abayas. Today, they reflect a woman's taste and personality."[24][65][66]

Although the dress code is often regarded in the West as a highly visible symbol of oppression, Saudi women place the dress code low on the list of priorities for reform or leave it off entirely.[67] Journalist Sabria Jawhar complains that Western readers of her blog on The Huffington Post are obsessed with her veil. She calls the niqab "trivial":[20][21]

(People) lose sight of the bigger issues like jobs and education. That's the issue of women's rights, not the meaningless things like passing legislation in France or Quebec to ban the burqa ... Non-Saudis presume to know what's best for Saudis, like Saudis should modernize and join the 21st century or that Saudi women need to be free of the veil and abaya ... And by freeing Saudi women, the West really means they want us to be just like them, running around in short skirts, nightclubbing and abandoning our religion and culture.

Some women say they want to wear the veil. They cite Islamic piety, pride in family traditions, and less sexual harassment from male colleagues. For many women, the dress code is a part of the right to modesty that Islam guarantees women. Some also perceive attempts at reform as anti-Islamic intrusion by Westerners. Faiza al-Obaidi, a biology professor, said: "They fear Islam, and we are the world's foremost Islamic nation."[12]

In 2014, a Saudi Arabian woman became the first female anchor to appear on Saudi state television without a headscarf.[68] She was reporting as a news anchor from London for the Al Ekhbariya channel.[68]

Sex segregation

A sign at the gym at the Marriott hotel in Jeddah.

Sexual segregation which keeps wives, sisters and daughters from contact with stranger men, follows from the extreme concern for female purity and family honour. Social events are largely predicated on the separation of men and women; the mixing of non-kin men and women at parties or the like is extremely rare and limited to some of the modernist Western-educated families.[69] Women who are seen socializing with a man who is not a relative, can be harassed by the mutaween, even charged with committing adultery, fornication or prostitution.[70]

Most Saudi homes have one entrance for men and another for women. For non-related males to enter the female sections of a Saudi home is a violation of family honour. The Arab word for the secluded section of the house is harim which means at once 'forbidden' and 'sacred'. Private space is associated with women while the public space, such as the living room, is reserved for men. Traditional house designs also use high walls, compartmentalized inner rooms, and curtains to protect the family and particularly women from the public.[71]

Moreover, sex segregation is expected in public. In restaurants, banks and other public places in Saudi Arabia, women are required to enter and exit through special doors.[72] Since the public sphere of life is the domain of men, women are expected to veil outside the secluded areas of their homes. Non-mahram women and men must minimize social interaction. Companies traditionally have been expected to create all-female areas if they hire women. Public transportation is segregated. Public places such as beaches and amusement parks are also segregated, sometimes by time, so that men and women attend at different hours.[73] Violation of the principles of sex segregation is known as khalwa.

Segregation is particularly strict in restaurants, since eating requires removal of the veil. Most restaurants in Saudi Arabia have "family" and "bachelor" sections, the latter for unmarried men or men without a family to accompany. Women or men with their families have to sit in the family section. In the families section, diners are usually seated in separate rooms or behind screens and curtains. Waiters are expected to give time for women to cover up before entering, although this practice is not always followed. Restaurants typically bar entrance to women who come without their husbands or mahram, although if they are allowed in, it will be to the family section. Women are barred from waitressing, except at a few women-only restaurants.[74][75]

Western companies often enforce Saudi religious regulations in restaurants, which has prompted some Western activists to criticise those companies. McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and other US firms, for instance, maintain segregated eating zones in their restaurants. The facilities in the families' section are usually lower in quality.[76] Men and women may, sometimes, mix in restaurants of Western luxury hotels that cater primarily to noncitizens.[27]

Exceptions to segregation rules sometimes include hospitals, medical colleges, and banks. The number of mixed-gender workplaces has increased since King Abdullah was crowned, although they are still not common.[17][30] Several newspaper publishers have desegregated their offices.[15]

As a practical matter, gender mixing is fairly common in parts of daily life. Women customarily take taxis driven by men. Many households have maids, who mix with the unrelated men of the households.[77] Maids, taxi drivers, and waiters tend to be foreigners, which is sometimes used as a reason to be less strict about segregation.[75]

The opening of the first co-educational university in 2009 caused a debate over segregation. A prominent cleric argued that segregation cannot be grounded in Sharia. He suggested those who advocate it are hypocrites:[16]

Mixing was part of normal life for the Ummah (Muslim world) and its societies ... Those who prohibit the mixing of the genders actually live it in their real lives, which is an objectionable contradiction as every fair-minded Muslim should follow Shariah judgments without excess or negligence. In many Muslim houses—even those of Muslims who say mixing is haram (forbidden)—you can find female servants working around unrelated males.

In 2008 Khamisa Mohammad Sawadi, a 75-year-old woman, was sentenced to 40 lashes and imprisonment for allowing a man to deliver bread to her directly in her home. Sawadi, a non-citizen, was deported.[27][78]

In 2010, a clerical adviser to the Royal court and Ministry of Justice issued a fatwa suggesting that women should provide breast milk to their employed drivers thereby making them relatives (a concept known as Rada).[79] The driver could then be trusted to be alone with the woman. The fatwa was ridiculed by women campaigners.[79]

Economic rights

Business and property

There are certain limitations to women doing business in the KSA. Along with not being able to drive motor vehicles, women are required to have men swear for them in a court of law. As real estate investor Loulwa al-Saidan complained,

For me to go to any government agency or to the court to buy or sell property, as a woman I am obligated to bring two men as witnesses to testify to my identity, and four male witnesses to testify that the first two are credible witnesses, and actually know me. Where is any woman going to find six men to go with her to the court?! It's hard for me to get my legal rights...the solution is to use one's connections, pay a bribe or be sharp-tongued.[22]


According to the International Labor Organization, Saudi women constitute 18.6% of the native workforce.[80] The rate of participation has grown from 15.3% in 1990 to 18.6% in 2011.[80] Other statistical reports quoted by the Al-Riyadh daily newspaper state 14.6% of workers in the public and private sectors of the Kingdom are women. When foreign expatriate workers are included in the total, the percentage of working Saudi women drops further to 6.1%.[81] This compares with over 40% in Muslim nations such as United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Malaysia.[82]

Some critics complain that this constitutes an underutilization of women's skills, since females make up 70% of the students in Saudi institutes of higher education.[83] Some jobs taken by women in almost every other country were reserved for men in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi delegation to the United Nations International Women's Year conference in Mexico City in 1975 and the Decade for women conference in Nairobi in 1985, was made up entirely of men.[84]

Employment for women has a number of restrictions under Saudi law and culture. According to the Saudi Labor Minister Dr. Ghazi Al-Qusaibi (speaking in 2006):

"the [Labor] Ministry is not acting to [promote] women's employment since the best place for a woman to serve is in her own home. ... therefore no woman will be employed without the explicit consent of her guardian. We will also make sure that the [woman's] job will not interfere with her work at home with her family, or with her eternal duty of raising her children...[83]

A woman's work must also be deemed suitable for the female physique and mentality. Women are allowed to work only in capacities in which they can serve women exclusively; there must be no contact or interaction with the opposite gender.[85] A woman's work should not lead to her traveling without a close male relative—which presents considerable problems as women are not allowed to drive motor vehicles and there is little or no public transportation in the Kingdom. (Most working women, however, out of necessity and practicality travel to work without a male relative and are alone with a driver.)[41][42][43]

Consequently, until 2005, women worked only as doctors, nurses, teachers, women's banks, or in a few other special situations where they had contact only with women. Almost all of these women had college and graduate degrees, and were employed either in schools, where men were not permitted to teach girls; or in hospitals, because conservative families prefer that female doctors and nurse treat their wives, sisters, and daughters.[86] Jobs such as judges, and positions of high public office were forbidden for women.[41][42][43]

Women's banks were an innovation allowed in 1980 to give women a place to put their money without having to have any contact with men. The banks employ women exclusively for every position except for the guards posted at the door to see that no men enter by mistake. "Usually a guard was married to one of the women employees inside, so that if documents had to be delivered he could deal with his wife rather than risking even the slight contact taking place between unmarried members of the opposite sex." [87] According to Mona al-Munajjed, a senior advisor with Booz & Company's Ideation Center, the number of Saudi women working in banking grew from 972 in 2000 to 3,700 in 2008.[88]

While the Labor Minister Al-Qusaibi stressed the need for women to say at home he also stated that "there is no option but to start [finding] jobs for the millions of women" in Saudi Arabia.[83] In recent years, the Labor Ministry has banned the employment of men or non-Saudi women in lingerie and other stores where women’s garments and perfumes are sold.[81] This policy started in 2005 when the Ministry announced a policy of staffing lingerie shops with women.[86] Since the shops served women customers, employing women would prevent mixing of the sexes in public (ikhtilat). Many Saudi women also disliked discussing the subject of their undergarments with male shop clerks.

However, the move met opposition from within the ministry and from conservative Saudis,[83] who argued the presence of women outside the home encouraged ikhtilat, and that according to Sharia, a woman's work outside the house is against her fitrah (natural state).

The few shops that employed women were "quickly closed by the religious police" (aka Hai'i).[83][86] Women responded by boycotting lingerie shops, and in June 2011 King Abdullah issued another decree giving lingerie shops one year to replace men workers with women.[86] This was followed by similar decrees for shops and shop departments specializing in other products for women, such as cosmetics, abayas and wedding dresses. The decrees came at "the height of the Arab Spring and were "widely interpreted" by activists as an attempt to preempt "pro-democracy protests".[86] However the policy has meant further clashes between conservatives and Hai'a men on the one hand, and the ministry, women customers and employees at female-staffed stores on the other. In 2013, the Ministry and the Hai'a leadership met to negotiate new terms. In November 2013, 200 religious police signed a letter stating that female employment was causing such a drastic increase in instances of ikhtilat, that "their job was becoming impossible."[86]

When women do work jobs also held by men, they often find it difficult to break into full-time work with Employee benefits like allowances, health insurance and social security. According to a report in the Saudi Gazette, an employer told a female reporter that her health insurance coverage did not include care for childbirth, but that of a male employee included such coverage for his wife.[89]

Saudi women are now seen developing professional careers as doctors, teachers and even business leaders, a process described by in 2007 by ABC News as "painfully slow".[90] Prominent examples include Dr. Salwa Al-Hazzaa, head of the ophthalmology department at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh[91] and Lubna Olayan, named by Forbes and Time as one of the world's most influential businesswomen.[92]

Some "firsts" in Saudi women's employment occurred in 2013, when the Kingdom registered its first female trainee lawyer, (Arwa al-Hujaili),[93] its first female lawyer to be granted an official license from its Ministry of Justice (Bayan Mahmoud Al-Zahran),[94] and the first female Saudi police officer (Ayat Bakhreeba). Bakhreeba earned her master's degree in public law from the Dubai police academy and is the first police woman to obtain a degree from the high-level security institute.[95] Furthermore, her thesis on “children’s rights in the Saudi system” was chosen as the best research paper by the police academy.[95]


Female literacy is estimated to be 81%, not far behind that of men.[96] In contrast, in 1970, only 2% of women were literate compared to 15% of men.[97] More women receive secondary- and tertiary-education than men;[6] 60% of all university graduates in Saudi Arabia are Saudi women,[8] and 50% percent of working women have a college education, compared to 16% of working men.[98] The percentage of Saudi women graduating from universities is higher than in Western countries.[99]

The quality of education is lower for females than males. Curricula and textbooks are updated less frequently, and teachers tend to be less qualified. At the higher levels, males have better research facilities.[100][101]

One of the official educational policies is to promote "belief in the One God, Islam as the way of life, and Muhammad as God's Messenger." Official policy particularly emphasizes religion in the education of girls: "The purpose of educating a girl is to bring her up in a proper Islamic way so as to perform her duty in life, be an ideal and successful housewife and a good mother, ready to do things which suit her nature such as teaching, nursing and medical treatment." Policy also specifies "women's right to obtain suitable education on equal footing with men in light of Islamic laws."[97]

Saudi women often specify education as the most important area for women's rights reform.[20][21][67]

Elementary education

Public education in Saudi Arabia is sex-segregated at all levels, and in general females and males do not attend the same school. Moreover, men are forbidden from teaching or working at girls' schools and women are disallowed from teaching at boys' schools.[100]

Higher education

Saudi Arabia is the home of Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University, the world's largest women-only university. Religious belief about gender roles and the perception that education is more relevant for men has resulted in fewer educational opportunities for women. The society's need for sex segregation in professional life is also used to justify restricting women's fields of study. Traditionally, women have been excluded from studying engineering, pharmacy, architecture, and law.[100][101]

This has changed moderately in recent years as nearly 60% of all Saudi university students are female.[102] Some fields, such as law and pharmacy, are beginning to open up for women. Saudi women can also study any subject they wish while abroad. Customs of male guardianship and purdah curtail women's ability to study abroad. In 1992, three times as many men studied abroad on government scholarships, although the ratio had been near 50 percent in the early '80s.[97][103]

Women are primarily encouraged to study service industries or social sciences. Education, medicine, public administration, natural sciences, social sciences, and Islamic studies are deemed appropriate for women. Of all female university graduates in 2007, 93 percent had degrees in education or social sciences.[100][101]

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which opened in September 2009, is Saudi Arabia's first coeducational campus where men and women study alongside each other. Women attend classes with men, drive on campus, and are not required to veil themselves. In its inaugural year, 15% of the students were female, all of whom had studied at foreign universities. Classes are taught in English.[104]

The opening of the university caused public debate. Addressing the issue, Sheikh Ahmad Qassim Al-Ghamdi, chief of the Makkah region's mutaween, claimed that gender segregation has no basis in Shariah, or Islamic law, and has been incorrectly applied in the Saudi judicial system. Al-Ghamdi said that hadith, the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, makes no references to gender segregation, and mixing is therefore permitted under Shariah. There were many calls for (and rumors of) his dismissal.[15][16]

Technology is a central part of higher education for women. Many women's colleges use distance education (from home) to compensate for women's poor access to transportation.[55] Male lecturers are not allowed to lecture at women's classes. Since there are few female lecturers, some universities use videoconferencing to have male professors teach female students without face-to-face contact.[100]

Child marriage hinders the cause of women's education, because traditional responsibilities and child-bearing are too burdensome. The drop-out rate of girls increases around puberty, as they exchange education for marriage. Roughly 25% of college-aged young women do not attend college, and in 2005–2006, women had a 60% dropout rate.[101]

In 2009, the king appointed Norah al-Faiz a deputy minister for women's education, the first female cabinet-level official.[27]


See also: Wadjda

Saudi Arabia was one of the few countries in the 2008 Olympics without a female delegation—although women teams do exist.[105]

In June 2012, the Saudi Arabian Embassy in London announced that female athletes would compete in the Olympics in 2012 in London, England for the first time.[106] Saudi blogger Eman al-Nafjan commented that as of 2012, Saudi girls are prevented from sports education at school and Saudi women have very little access to sports facilities, that the two Saudi women who participated in the 2012 Olympics, Sarah Attar and Wojdan Shaherkani, attracted both criticism and support on Twitter, and that Jasmine Alkhaldi, a Filipina born from a Saudi father, was widely supported in the online Saudi community.[107]

In 2013, Saudi women were first allowed to ride bicycles, although only around parks and other "recreational areas".[108] They must also be dressed in full body coverings and be accompanied by a male relative.[108] Also in 2013, the Saudi government sanctioned sports for girls in private schools for the first time.[109]


Further information: Women to drive movement

Women must show the signed permission from a mahram (close male relative—husband, son, father, uncle or grandson) before she is free to travel, even inside Saudi Arabia.[110] However, out of necessity most women leave the house alone and often have contact with unrelated men to shop or conduct business.[111]

Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, although it is tolerated in rural areas[31] (in rural areas women drive "because their families' survival depends on it" and because the mutaween "can't effectively patrol" remote areas, according to one Saudi native, although as of 2010 mutaween were clamping down on this freedom.[112]). Saudi Arabia has no written ban on women driving, but Saudi law requires citizens to use a locally issued license while in the country. Such licenses are not issued to women, thus making it effectively illegal for women to drive.[113] Furthermore, most Saudi scholars and religious authorities have declared women driving haram (forbidden).[114] Commonly given reasons for the prohibition on women driving include:[115][116]

  1. Driving a car involves uncovering the face.
  2. Driving a car may lead women to go out of the house more often.
  3. Driving a car may lead women to have interaction with non-mahram males, for example at traffic accidents.
  4. Women driving cars may lead to overcrowding the streets and many young men may be deprived of the opportunity to drive.
  5. Driving would be the first step in an erosion of traditional values, such as gender segregation.

Women are generally discouraged from using public transport. It is technically forbidden, but unenforced, for women to take taxis or hire private drivers, as it results in khalwa (illegal mixing with a non-mahram man).[115] Women have limited access to bus and train services. Where it is allowed, they must use a separate entrance and sit in a back section reserved for women.[100] But the bus companies with the widest coverage in Riyadh and Jeddah do not allow women at all.[117]

Critics reject the ban on driving on the grounds that: (1) it is not supported by the Quran, (2) it causes violation of gender segregation customs, by needlessly forcing women to take taxis with male drivers, (3) it is an inordinate financial burden on families, causing the average woman to spend according to half of her income on taxis( Fadia Jiffry) and (4) it impedes the education and employment of women, both of which tend to require commuting. In addition, male drivers are a frequent source of complaints of sexual harassment, and the public transport system is widely regarded as unreliable and dangerous.[117][118]

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has said that he wants women to drive when the society is ready for it:[31]

I believe strongly in the rights of women. My mother is a woman. My sister is a woman. My daughter is a woman. My wife is a woman. I believe the day will come when women will drive. In fact if you look at the areas of Saudi Arabia, the desert, and in the rural areas, you will find that women do drive. The issue will require patience. In time I believe that it will be possible. I believe that patience is a virtue.

On 6 November 1990, about 20 Saudi women illegally drove the streets of Riyadh in protest of the ban on Saudi women drivers. The women were eventually surrounded by curious onlookers and stopped by traffic cops, who took them into custody. They were released after their male guardians signed statements that they would not drive again, but thousands of leaflets with their names and their husbands' names – with "whores" and "pimps" scrawled next to them – circulated around the city. The women were suspended from jobs, had their passports confiscated, and were told not to speak to the press. About a year after the protest, they returned to work and received their passports, but they were kept under surveillance and passed over for promotions.[119]

In 2008, advocates for the right of women to drive in Saudi Arabia collected about 1,000 signatures, hoping to persuade King Abdullah to lift the ban, but they were unsuccessful.

On International Women's Day 2008, the Saudi feminist activist Wajeha al-Huwaider posted a YouTube video of herself driving in a rural area (where it is tolerated), and requesting a universal right for women to drive. She commented: "I would like to congratulate every group of women that has been successful in gaining rights. And I hope that every woman that remains fighting for her rights receives them soon."[28] Another women's driving campaign started during the 2011 Saudi Arabian protests. Al-Huwaider filmed Manal al-Sharif driving in Khobar and the video was published on YouTube and Facebook.[120]

Skepticism is common about possible change in Saudi Arabia's deeply religious and patriarchal society, where many believe that allowing women the right to drive could lead to Western-style openness and an erosion of traditional values.[121]

In early 2010, the government began considering a proposal to create a nationwide women-only bus system. Activists are divided on the proposal, some saying it will reduce sexual harassment and transportation expenses, while facilitating women entering the workforce. Others criticize it as an escape from the real issue of recognizing women's right to drive.[117][118]

Many of the laws controlling women apply to citizens of other countries who are relatives of Saudi men. For example, the following women require a male guardian's permission to leave the country: American-citizen women married to Saudi men, adult American-citizen women who are the unmarried daughters of Saudi fathers, and American-citizen boys under the age of 21 with a Saudi father.[70]

In July 2011 a woman from Jeddah was sentenced to ten lashes by whip for driving a car.[122] In contrast to this punishment activists pointed out that the maximum penalty for a traffic violation was a fine. Previously when women were found driving they would normally be questioned and forced to sign a pledge stating they will never drive again. The whipping sentence followed a campaign in June to push for women's rights to drive as well as just two days after King Abdullah made a promise to protect women's rights. King Abdullah overturned the sentence.[123]

Legal issues

Political life

Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, with a Consultative Assembly (shura) of lawmakers appointed by the king. Prior to a September 2011 announcement by King Abdullah only men 30 years of age and older could serve as lawmakers. According to his September 2011 announcement, women can now be appointed to the Consultative Assembly.[7] Women first joined the Consultative Assembly in January 2013, occupying thirty seats.[124][125]

In 2013 three women were named as deputy chairpersons of three committees. Thurayya Obeid was named deputy chairwoman of the Human Rights and Petitions Committee, Zainab Abu Talib, deputy chairwoman of the Information and Cultural Committee, and Lubna Al Ansari, deputy chairwoman of the Health Affairs and Environment Committee.[124] Another major appointment occurred in April 2012 when Muneera bint Hamdan Al Osaimi was appointed assistant undersecretary in the medical services affairs department at the Ministry of Health.[126]

Women could not vote or run for office in the country's first municipal elections in many decades, in 2005, nor in 2011. They campaigned for the right to do so in the 2011 municipal elections, attempting unsuccessfully to register as voters.[127] In September 2011, King Abdullah announced that women would be allowed to vote and run for office in the 2015 municipal elections.[7][14][128][129] Although King Abdullah was no longer alive at the time of the 2015 municipal elections, women were allowed to vote and stand as candidates for the first time in the country's history.[130] According to results released to The Associated Press, 20 female candidates were elected to the approximately 2,100 municipal council seats being contested.[131] Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi was the first elected female politician in the country.[132]

Women are allowed to hold position on boards of chambers of commerce. In 2008, two women were elected to the board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. There are no women on the High Court or the Supreme Judicial Council. There is one woman in a cabinet-level position as deputy minister for women's education who was appointed in February 2009.[27] In 2010, the government announced female lawyers would be allowed to represent women in family cases.[133] In 2013, Saudi Arabia registered its first female trainee lawyer, Arwa al-Hujaili.[93]

In court, the testimony of one man equals that of two women. Female parties to court proceedings generally must deputize male relatives to speak on their behalf.[134]

Identity cards

At age 15, Saudi men are issued identity cards they were required to carry at all times. Before the 21st century, women were not issued cards, but were named as dependents on their mahrams (usually their father or husband) ID card, so that "strictly speaking" they were not allowed in public without their mahram.[135]

Proving you were who you said you were in the court system was also a challenge for Saudi women, since not only did they not have access to ID cards but also passports or drivers licenses. Women had to produce two male relations to confirm their identity. If a man denied that the woman in court was his mother or sister, "the man's word would normally be taken", making a woman vulnerable to things like false claims to her property and violation of her rights to inheritance if she fell out of favor with her family.[135]

The Ulema, Saudi's religious authorities, opposed the idea of issuing separate identity cards for women. Many other conservative Saudi citizens argue that cards, which show a woman's unveiled face, violate purdah and Saudi custom.[136] Nonetheless women's rights to free movement and to an ID have gradually been loosened.

In 2001, a small number of ID were issued for women who had the permission of their mahram. The cards were issued to the mahram, not the women, and explained by the government as a way to fight forgery and fraud.[137] By 2006 the permission of their mahram for a card was no longer required, and by 2013 ID cards were compulsory for women.[138]

In 2008, women were allowed to enter hotels and furnished apartments without their mahram if they had their national identification cards.[139] In April 2010, a new, optional ID card for women was issued which allows them to travel in countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The cards include GPS tracking, fingerprints and features that make them difficult to forge. Women do not need male permission to apply for the card, but do need it to travel abroad.[140]

Family code


In 2005, the country's religious authority banned the practice of forced marriage. However, the marriage contract is officially between the husband-to-be and the father of the bride. Neither a man nor a woman can marry a non-Saudi citizen without official permission.[141] In 2016 it was announced that, according to a directorate issued by the justice minister, Walid al-Samaani, clerics who register marriage contracts would have to hand a copy to the bride “to ensure her awareness of her rights and the terms of the contract”.[142]

Polygamy is legal in Saudi Arabia. Saudi men may take as many as four wives, provided that they can support all wives equally. It is reportedly in decline.[141] Polyandry is forbidden.

The Kingdom prevents Saudi women from marrying expat men who test positive for drugs (including alcohol), incurable STD's or genetic diseases, but does not protect Saudi men from marrying expat women with such problems. [143]

Domestic violence

Domestic abuse in Saudi Arabia started to receive public attention in 2004 after a popular television presenter, Rania al-Baz, was severely beaten by her husband, and photographs of her "bruised and swollen face" were published in the press.[72][144] According to Al-Baz, her husband beat her after she answered the phone without his permission and told her he intended to kill her.[145]

Violence against women and children in the home was traditionally not seen as a criminal matter in Saudi Arabia until 2013.[146] In 2008, "social protection units", Saudi Arabia's version of women's shelters, were ordered by the Prime Minister to expand in several large Saudi cities. That year the Prime Minister also ordered the government to draft a national strategy to deal with domestic violence.[147] Some Saudi royal foundations, such as the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue and the King Khalid Foundation, have also led education and awareness efforts against domestic violence.[147] Five years later, in 2013, Saudi Arabia launched its first major effort against domestic violence, the "No More Abuse" ad campaign.[147]

In August 2013, the Saudi cabinet approved a law making domestic violence a criminal offence for the first time. The law calls for a punishment of up to a year in prison and a fine of up to 50,000 riyals (US$13,000).[146] The maximum punishments can be doubled for repeat offenders. The law criminalizes psychological and sexual abuse, as well as physical abuse. It also includes a provision obliging employees to report instances of abuse in the workplace to their employer.[148] The move followed a Twitter campaign. The new laws were welcomed by Saudi women's rights activists, although some expressed concerns that the law could not be implemented successfully without new training for the judiciary, and that the tradition of male guardianship would remain an obstacle to prosecutions.[146]


There are no laws defining the minimum age for marriage in Saudi Arabia. Most religious authorities have justified the marriage of girls as young as nine and boys as young as fifteen.[149] However, they believe a father can marry off his daughter at any age as long as consummation is delayed until she reaches puberty.[150] A 2009 think-tank report on women's education concluded "Early marriage (before 16 years) ... negatively influences their chances of employment and the economic status of the family. It also negatively affects their health as they are at greater risk of dying from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth."[101] A 2004 United Nations report found that 16 percent of teenage Saudi women were or had been married.[141]

A 2010 news report documented the case of Shareefa, an abandoned child-bride. Shareefa was married to an 80-year-old man when she was 10. The deal was arranged by the girl's father in exchange for money, against the wishes of her mother. Her husband divorced her a few months after the marriage without her knowledge, and abandoned her at the age of 21. The mother is attempting legal action, arguing that "Shareefa is now 21, she has lost more than 10 years of her life, her chance for an education, a decent marriage and normal life. Who is going to take responsibility for what she has gone through?”[151]

The government's Saudi Human Rights Commission condemned child marriage in 2009, calling it "a clear violation against children and their psychological, moral and physical rights." It recommended that marriage officials adhere to a minimum age of 17 for females and 18 for males.[101][152]

Female genital cutting is reported as rare, possibly occurring among minorities such as African immigrants, Bedouin.[141][153][154][155] Some organizations are skeptical about whether or not official statistics can be trusted, because of the government's censorship of sensitive information and restrictions on independent aid organizations.[156][157]

In 2013 the Directorate General of Passports allowed Saudi women married to foreigners to sponsor their children, so that the children can have residency permits (iqamas) with their mothers named as the sponsors, and have the right to work in the private sector in Saudi Arabia while on the sponsorship of their mothers, and the mother can also bring her children who are living abroad back to Saudi Arabia if they have no criminal records. Foreign men married to Saudi women were also granted the right to work in the private sector while on the sponsorship of their wives on condition that the title on their iqamas should be written as "husband of a Saudi wife" and that they should have valid passports enabling them to return to their homes at any time.[158]

Parental authority

In the area of parental authority, legally, children belong to their father who has sole guardianship. If a divorce takes place, women may be granted custody of their young children until they reach the age of seven. Older children are often awarded to the father or the paternal grandparents. Women cannot confer citizenship to children born to a non-Saudi Arabian father.[141]

Inheritance issues

The inheritance share of women in Saudi is generally smaller than that to which men are entitled. The Quran states that daughters should inherit half as much as sons.[Quran 4:11][159] In rural areas, some women are also deprived of their entitled share as they are considered to be dependents of their fathers or husbands. Marrying outside the tribe is also grounds for limiting women's inheritance.[141][160]

Sexual violence and trafficking

Under Sharia law, generally enforced by the government, the courts will punish a rapist with anything from flogging to execution. As there is no penal code in Saudi Arabia, there is no written law which specifically criminalizes rape or prescribes its punishment. The rape victim is often punished as well, if she had first entered the rapist's company in violation of purdah. There is no prohibition against spousal or statutory rape.

Migrant women, often working as domestic helpers, represent a particularly vulnerable group and their living conditions are sometimes slave-like and include physical oppression and rape. In 2006, U.S. ambassador John Miller, Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said the forced labor of foreign women domestic workers was the most common kind of slavery in Saudi Arabia. Miller claimed human trafficking is a problem everywhere, but Saudi Arabia's many foreign domestic workers and loopholes in the system cause many to fall victim to abuse and torture.[161]

Women, as well as men, may be subject to harassment by the country's religious police, the mutaween, in some cases including arbitrary arrest and physical punishments.[162] A UN report cites a case in which two mutaween were charged with molesting a woman; the charges were dismissed on the grounds that mutaween are immune from prosecution.[14]

In some cases, victims of sexual assault are punished for khalwa, being alone with an unrelated male, prior to the assault. In the Qatif girl rape case, an 18-year-old victim of kidnapping and gang rape was sentenced by a Saudi court to six months in prison and 90 lashes. The judge ruled she violated laws on segregation of the sexes, as she was in an unrelated man's car at the time of the attack. She was also punished for trying to influence the court through the media.[163] The Ministry of Justice defended the sentence, saying she committed adultery and "provoked the attack" because she was "indecently dressed".[164] Her attackers were found guilty of kidnapping and were sentenced for prison terms ranging from two to ten years.[165]

According to Human Rights Watch, one of the rapists filmed the assault with his mobile phone but the judges refused to allow it as evidence.[166][167] The victim told ABC News that her brother tried to kill her after the attack.[168] The case attracted international attention. The United Nations criticized social attitudes and the system of male guardianship, which deter women from reporting crimes. The UN report argued that women are prevented from escaping abusive environments because of their lack of legal and economic independence. They are further oppressed, according to the UN, by practices surrounding divorce and child custody, the absence of a law criminalizing violence against women, and inconsistencies in the application of laws and procedures.[169]

The case prompted Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy to comment "What kind of God would punish a woman for rape? That is a question that Muslims must ask of Saudi Arabia because unless we challenge the determinedly anti-women teachings of Islam in Saudi Arabia, that kingdom will always get a free pass."[167] In December 2007, King Abdullah pardoned the victim, but did not agree that the judge had erred.[14][164]

In 2009, the Saudi Gazette reported that a 23-year-old unmarried woman was sentenced to one year in prison and 100 lashes for adultery. She had been gang-raped, become pregnant, and tried unsuccessfully to abort the fetus. The flogging was postponed until after the delivery.[170]


Trends in the enforcement of Islamic code have influenced women's rights in Saudi Arabia. The Iranian Revolution and September 11 attacks constitute recent inflection points in Saudi cultural history.

In 1979, the Iranian Revolution led to a resurgence of fundamentalism in many parts of the Islamic world. Fundamentalists sought to repel Westernization, and governments sought to defend themselves against revolution. In Saudi Arabia, fundamentalists occupied the Grand Mosque (Masjid al-Haram) and demanded a more conservative Islamic state, including "an end of education of women".[171] The government responded with stricter interpretations and enforcement of Islamic laws. Newspapers were discouraged from publishing images of women; the Interior Ministry discouraged women from employment, including expatriates. Scholarships for women to study abroad declined. Wearing the abaya in public became mandatory.[15][29][66][67]

In contrast, the 11 September attacks against the United States in 2001 precipitated a reaction against ultra-conservative Islamic sentiment; fifteen of the nineteen hijackers in the September 11 attacks came from Saudi Arabia. Since then, the mutaween have become less active, and reformists have been appointed to key government posts. The government says it has withdrawn support from schools deemed extremist, and moderated school textbooks.[20][30][31]

The government under King Abdullah is regarded as moderately progressive. It has opened the country's first co-educational university, appointed the first female cabinet member, and prohibited domestic violence. Gender segregation has relaxed, although it is still the norm. Critics say the reform is far too slow, and often more symbolic than substantive. Conservative clerics have successfully rebuffed attempts to outlaw child marriage. Women were not allowed to vote in the country's first municipal elections, although the King supports a woman's right to drive and vote. The few female government officials have minimal power. Norah Al-Faiz, the first female cabinet member, will not appear without her veil, appear on television without permission, or talk to male colleagues except by videoconferencing. She opposes girls' school sports as premature.[30][31][32][172][173][174]

The government has made international commitments to women's rights. It ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, with the proviso that the convention could not override Islamic law. However, government officials told the United Nations that there is no contradiction with Islam. The degree of compliance between government commitments and practice is disputed. A 2009 report by the UN questioned whether any international law ratified by the government has ever been applied inside Saudi Arabia.[14]

Some of the recently appointed female advisors to parliament (shurah) believe slow reform is effective. According to Dr. Nora Alyousif, "The Saudi leadership is working hard on reform and supporting women ... Seventy years ago we were completely isolated from the world. The changes which are taking place are unmistakable, and we have finally started opening up."[22] Dr. Maha Almuneef says, “There are small steps now. There are giant steps coming. But most Saudis have been taught the traditional ways. You can't just change the social order all at once."[30]

Local and international women's groups are pushing governments for reform, taking advantage of the fact that some rulers are eager to project a more progressive image to the West. The presence of powerful businesswomen—still a rare breed—in some of these groups helps increase their representation in Saudi Arabian government and society.[30][163]

Lubna Olayan, the CEO of Olayan Financing Company, is a well-known advocate for women's rights. She was the first woman to address a mixed-gender business audience in Saudi Arabia, speaking at the Jeddah Economic Forum in 2004. She used the occasion to advocate for economic equality:[175]

My vision is of a country with a prosperous and diversified economy in which any Saudi citizen, irrespective of gender who is serious about finding employment, can find a job in the field for which he or she is best qualified, leading to a thriving middle class and in which all Saudi citizens, residents or visitors to the country feel safe and can live in an atmosphere where mutual respect and tolerance exist among all, regardless of their social class, religion or gender.

Forbes and Time magazines have named Lubna Olayan one of the world's most influential women.[92] The Grand Mufti, Abdul-Azeez ibn Abdullaah Aal ash-Shaikh condemned the event, saying "Allowing women to mix with men is the root of every evil and catastrophe ... It is highly punishable. Mixing of men and women is a reason for greater decadence and adultery."[176]

Wajeha al-Huwaider is often described as the most radical and prominent feminist activist in Saudi Arabia. In a 2008 interview, she described plans for an NGO called The Association for the Protection and Defense of Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia. She described the goals of the organization:[177]

Among the issues that have been raised, and that are of the utmost importance, are: representation for women in shari'a courts; setting a [minimum] age for girls' marriages; allowing women to take care of their own affairs in government agencies and allowing them to enter government buildings; protecting women from domestic violence, such as physical or verbal violence, or keeping her from studies, work, or marriage, or forcing her to divorce ... We need laws to protect women from these aggressions and violations of their rights as human beings. And there is also [the need to] prevent girls' circumcision ... We truly have a great need for a Ministry of Women's Affairs to deal with women's rights, issues of motherhood and infancy, and women's health in rural areas... This is our ultimate goal ...

In 2008, the government warned The Association for the Protection and Defense of Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia not to hold any protests.[27]

In 2013 Saudi Arabia registered its first female trainee lawyer, Arwa al-Hujaili,[93] who is also the first Saudi woman to attain an aircraft dispatcher license.[178] The same year, Saudi women were first allowed to ride bicycles, although only around parks and other "recreational areas".[108] They must also be dressed in full Islamic body coverings and be accompanied by a male relative.[108]

Sameera Aziz is the first Saudi Media Personality aimed to make film in Bollywood after opening her first ever Production House at Bollywood, making and directing her Bollywood movie REEM THE TRUE STORY to show the 21st century's Saudi lifestyle and Saudi women to the world. She has been highly appreciated by progressive Saudi minds and known as the First Saudi Director in Bollywood.[179]

Saudis frequently debate how to bring about change. Those who oppose activists like Wajeha al-Huwaider fear that an all or nothing approach to women's rights will spur a backlash against any change.[67] Journalist Sabria Jawhar dismisses Huwaider as a show-off: "The problem with some Saudi activists is that they want to make wholesale changes that are contrary to Islam, which requires a mahram for traveling women. If one wonders why great numbers of Saudi women don't join Al-Huwaider it's because they are asked to defy Islam. Al-Huwaider's all or nothing position undercuts her credibility."[52]

Retaliation against women's rights activism has some precedent. Immediately following Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Saudi women launched a campaign for more rights. Forty-seven women drove illegally through Riyadh, in protest against the ban on driving. Activists presented a petition to King Fahd requesting "basic legal and social rights." Subsequently, a feminist leader was arrested and tortured. Fundamentalists demanded strict punishment of the women who had driven in protest, and denounced activists as "whores." The mutaween enforced the dress code more aggressively.[180]

Many believe slow change is the only kind possible. History professor Hatoon al-Fassi says recent campaigns for women's rights have opened up public discourse on topics such as child marriage and rape. "It's an exaggeration to call it a women's movement. But we are proud to say that something is going on in Saudi Arabia. We are not really free, but it is possible for women to express themselves as never before."[30] Nonetheless, she says Westerners do not understand Saudi culture and how potentially traumatic change can be: "People had lived their whole lives doing one thing and believing one thing, and suddenly the king and the major clerics were saying that mixing was O.K. You can't begin to imagine the impact that the ban on mixing has on our lives and what lifting this ban would mean."[17]

Others regard the current pace of change as much too slow, and activism as too limited. Sumayya Jabarti, editor of the Arab News, says there are too many women with decision-making power who are like "queen bees," doing nothing to question the status quo. "People say things are changing for women because they are comparing it to before, when things were below zero. People say 'change,' but it is all relative and it is very, very limited ... Change is not coming, we are taking it ... I don't think the way is paved. I think we are building it through the route taken ... Most of the time, we are walking in place."[24]

Most Saudi women oppose mixed workplaces and women driving,[30] and a majority of women do not think women should hold political office.[12] Many embrace the veil and the male-guardianship system.[12][17] Many Saudis view their country as "the closest thing to an ideal and pure Islamic nation",[12] and therefore most in need of resistance to Western values. Conservative cleric Mohsen al-Awajy says the country must resist secularization: "Saudi society is a special, tribal society, and neither King Abdullah or anyone else can impose his own interpretation of Islam. They can do nothing without Islam. There is no Saudi Arabia without Islam."[30]

Princess Loulwa Al-Faisal describes herself as a conservative, advocating change that is gradual and consistent with Islam. A member of the royal family, she argues that Islam sees women's rights as equal but different, which "Together, add up to a secure society that works". Princess Al-Faisal argues "The ultra-conservatives and the ultra-liberals both want the same thing, the destruction of the Islamic way. We are preserving it ... There are problems mostly with the way the law is interpreted, mostly in the courts, but those are changing." According to Princess Al-Faisal, Saudi women are better off than Western women in some ways: "their property is inviolable and that men have a duty to look after them". She also says the "lack of modesty" in the West is "bad for the children". Nonetheless, she supports the women's suffrage in municipal elections.[181] When Thomas Friedman asked her what she would do if she were "queen for a day", she replied "First thing, I'd let women drive".[182]

In 2013 the Saudi government sanctioned sports for girls in private schools for the first time.[109] In 2016 four Saudi women were allowed to participate in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and Princess Reema was appointed to lead the new department for women of the sports authority.[183][184]

New technology

Gender segregation has produced great enthusiasm for innovative communications technology, especially when it is anonymous. Saudis were early adopters of Bluetooth technology, as men and women use it to communicate secretly.[185]

Saudi women use online social networking as a way to share ideas they cannot share publicly. As one woman put it:

In Saudi Arabia, we live more of a virtual life than a real life. I know people who are involved in on-line romances with people they have never met in real life ... And many of us use Facebook for other things, like talking about human rights and women's rights. We can protest on Facebook about the jailing of a blogger which is something we couldn't do on the streets.

Some conservative clerics have called for Facebook to be banned because it causes gender mingling. One cleric called it a "door to lust" and cause of "social strife".[57]

Foreign views

Three Muslim women in 19th-century dress. The middle woman is from Mecca (the other two are Syrian).

Western critics often compare the situation of Saudi women to a system of apartheid, analogous to South Africa's treatment of non-whites during South Africa's apartheid era. As evidence, they cite restrictions on travel, fields of study, choice of profession, access to the courts, and political speech.[186][187][188] The New York Times writes, "Saudi women are denied many of the same rights that 'Blacks' and 'Coloreds' were denied in apartheid South Africa and yet the kingdom still belongs to the very same international community that kicked Pretoria out of its club."[167]

Some commentators have argued that Saudi gender policies constitute a crime against humanity, and warrant intervention from the international community. They criticize the U.S. government for publicizing oppression by enemies such as the Taliban, even though its allies, like Saudi Arabia, have similar policies. Mary Kaldor views gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia as similar to that enforced by the Taliban in Afghanistan.[189] In contrast, political commentator Daniel Pipes, sees Saudi gender apartheid as tempered by other practices, such as allowing women to attend school and work.[43][190][191][192]

Critics also blame Western corporations that cooperate in enforcing segregation. American chains such as Starbucks and Pizza Hut maintain separate eating areas; the men's areas are typically high-quality, whereas the women's are rundown or lack seats. In a 2001 column, Washington Post editor Colbert I. King commented:

As with Saudi Arabia, white-ruled South Africa viewed external criticism as a violation of its sovereignty and interference with its internal affairs. And U.S. corporations in South Africa, as with their Saudi Arabian counterparts, pleaded that they had no choice but to defer to the local "culture."

King wonders why there is nothing like the Sullivan Principles for gender-based discrimination.[193] Journalist Anne Applebaum argues that gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia gets a free pass from American feminists. She questions why American civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson were active in protesting South Africa's racial apartheid, but American feminists rarely venture beyond reproductive rights when discussing international politics: “Until this changes, it will be hard to mount a campaign, in the manner of the anti-apartheid movement, to enforce sanctions or codes of conduct for people doing business there.”[188]

Cultural relativism is the root of activist inaction, according to feminists such as Azar Majedi, Pamela Bone, and Maryam Namazie. They argue that political Islam is misogynist, and the desire of Western liberals to tolerate Islam blinds them to women's rights violations. Majedi and Namazie, both born in Iran, consider cultural relativism racist: “To put it bluntly, according to this concept, because of my birthplace, I should enjoy fewer rights relative to a woman born in Sweden, England, or France.” Pamela Bone argues feminist apathy is supported by “the dreary cultural relativism that pervades the thinking of so many of those once described as on the Left. We are no better than they are. We should not impose our values on them. We can criticise only our own. The problem with this mindset is that, with all its faults, Western culture is clearly, objectively, better.” Bone argues that cultural relativism comes from a fear that criticizing Islam will be considered racist.[186][194][195]

Ann Elizabeth Mayer, an American specialist in Islamic law, sees gender apartheid as enshrined in the Saudi Basic Law:

Article 9. The family is the kernel of Saudi society, and its members shall be brought up on the basis of the Islamic faith, and loyalty and obedience to Allah, His Messenger, and to guardians; respect for and implementation of the law, and love of and pride in the homeland and its glorious history as the Islamic faith stipulates.
Article 10. The state will aspire to strengthen family ties, maintain its Arab and Islamic values and care for all its members, and to provide the right conditions for the growth of their resources and capabilities.

Mayer argues that Articles 9 and 10 deny women "any opportunity to participate in public law or government".[196]

In the poetry world

"Women in Black, by Hala" The voices of the middle east

See also

Wikinews has related news: Female lawyers to be granted court access in Saudi Arabia


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  192. Pipes, Daniel (2003). Miniatures: views of Islamic and Middle Eastern politics. p. 63. ISBN 978-0-7658-0215-6. Yes, the Saudi state deems the Koran to be its constitution, forbids the practice of any religion but Islam on its territory, employs an intolerant religious police, and imposes gender apartheid. But it also enacts non-Koranic regulations, employs large numbers of non-Muslims, constrains the religious police, and allows women to attend school and work.
  193. Colbert I. King. Included in Klein, John M., Ethics for International Business: Decision-Making in a Global Political Economy, Routledge, 2005, p. 180
  194. "Christianity has been Challenge, Islam has Not!". Center for Inquiry. Retrieved 25 September 2010.
  195. Namazie, Maryam (14 August 2001). "Racism, Cultural Relativism and Women's Rights". Retrieved 25 September 2010.
  196. Mayer, Ann (2007). Islam And Human Rights: Tradition And Politics, Fourth Edition. Westview Press. p. 139. ISBN 978-0-8133-4335-8. Taken together, these suggest an intention to employ appeals to Saudi family values and premodern Islamic law in order to maintain the traditional patriarchal family structure and to keep women subordinated and cloistered within its confines, denied any opportunity to participate in public life or government. In other words, the Basic Law accommodates the Saudi system of gender apartheid.

Further reading

External links

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