Saudi Arabia is one of economically developed countries, but ironically, its women are some of the most disenfranchised in the whole world. There are various reasons why Saudi women are so highly discriminated but the major reasons are the tribal culture, the country’s religion, and state policies.
This paper examines some of the rights Saudi women are denied, including the right to education, freedom of movement, right to justice and safety from violence, right to vote, right not to be forced into marriage and the right to health care. It identifies the guardianship and separation of the sexes laws as the means by which the discrimination is practiced on the women.
While international media has painted Saudi Arabia as one of the worst places to be born a woman, the Saudi women do not see the situation as insufferable; in fact they believe it is their duty to change it. This has led to increased activism, aided by education of more women, technology i.e. social media, and the courage to speak more openly about women issues.
As it happens worldwide, there are resistors to change who include clerics and traditional women. The power wielded by clerics is absolute as the country relies on them to interpret the Quran laws which are also the country’s laws.
There is hope for Saudi women, if the progress made so far is anything to go by. Despite the slow pace of reforms, someday Saudi women will experience being human beings, with the freedom to pursue happiness.
Looking at the issue of women rights in Saudi Arabia on the internet, one can be amazed by the number of articles, blogs, journals, studies and reports on the subject. In contrast to other countries exhibiting similar levels of economic development (Saudi Arabia is ranked 56 out of 187 countries), conditions for women have not improved in tandem with this economic growth. In fact Saudi Arabia is ranked only 135 out of 146 in relation to gender equality.
News articles are littered with stories of women married off without their consent, sexually and physically abused by spouses and other relatives, honor killings, lack of access to justice and employment, lack of economic freedom, lack of the freedom of expression and movement, political disenfranchisement amongst others. The most unique of the curtailed rights is the freedom to drive; nowhere in the world, including other Islamic countries, are women forbidden to drive.
Historically, women were subjugated to men in all areas of life. The cultures of the Middle Eastern people propagated women as property of their men; woman belonged either to a father, brother or husband. As this tradition persists, the unwritten guardianship laws dictate that a woman must be under the tutorship of a male relative at all times of her life. The irony of this situation is seen in cases where a 40 year old woman is under the guardianship of her 15 year old son, and must seek his permission if she wishes to go anywhere.
The lack of an adequate constitutional framework guiding the interactions of people gives rise to loopholes that one group might exploit in detriment of another. The Quran provides guidance to Muslims on how they are to relate to Allah and to other human beings. As in case of other religious writings, content interpretation is left to the whims of the clerics, many of whom are fiercely resistant to change.
This patriarchal society seems to be afraid of sex, and most of the challenges that women are facing are as a result of this fear. It is the reason for the strict separation of men and women; no woman is allowed to come into any contact with a man unless he is a relative. To reinforce this separation, women have been denied basic human rights as the law favors men over women.
Denied Human Rights
All human beings are entitled to basic human rights, but Saudi women are denied many of these rights due to the law of guardianship and the law of separation.
Right to education
In Saudi Arabia, a woman’s guardian may marry her off at a tender age or deny her the chance to get an education. The women that get a chance to go to school may not choose just any course to pursue since courses such as engineering and medicine are reserved for men. Moreover the law of separation would make it difficult for them to practice the respective professions.
Freedom of movement
Women may not go anywhere without the escort of a guardian. They may not take public means of transport i.e. buses due to separation laws. This restricts the women’s movement so much that professional women spend a lot more money on transport than any other expense.
Rights to justice and safety from violence
The guardianship laws are supposedly for the women’s protection. However, they simply reduce women to mere property to be disposed off at the whim of the guardian despite, as Al-Mohamed (2006) notes, Islam prescribing ‘financial independence for women’. Women and/or girls are usually sold off into marriage and are oftentimes sexually and physically abused by guardians. Guardianship laws make it difficult if not impossible for abused women to seek legal redress/ justice. To report to a police station one must have the written approval of the guardian, and the escort of a male relative. Moreover, the cultural idea that a man’s honor is derived from the chastity of the women under his care results in honor killings, where a male relative will kill a woman/girl who he deems to have soiled the family’s reputation.
Rights to vote and political participation
It is only in September 2011 that King Abdullah granted women the right to vote and run in municipal elections. However, the opportunity is set for the 2015 elections and is not sure, as weak enactments and fierce resistance from clerics have in the past led to the stalling of other royal decrees. This has led to maintenance of the status quo despite government statements on change. The Human Rights Watch world report (2011) states “King Abdullah has not fulfilled several specific reform promises; reforms to date have involved largely symbolic steps to improve the visibility of women and marginally expand freedom of expression”.
Rights not to be forced into marriage
This right is unheard of to many Saudi women. Under the law of guardianship, only a guardian will approve of a marriage and thus the guardian can sell off the women under his care to anyone, usually the highest bidder, despite his age. The women have no way of seeking redress since they need those very guardians to seek assistance from government officials.
Rights to health care
While in other parts of the world women enjoy the right to health care, under the male guardianship law, the male decides on whether the woman can see a medical doctor, and even approves of elective surgical procedures. This denies women access to proper medical care. Saudi Arabia has the some of the highest mortality rates for mothers during childbirth.
The State of the Fight
For decades now, a number of Saudi women activists have repeatedly called on the government to reconsider its stance on women issues. International pressure has led to some consideration though the clerics have repeatedly cautioned against westernization by empowering women. Liberalists have noted that the situation is not the result of abusing religious authority, but rather, of a state policy that continually propagates male superiority to the detriment of its women. The more successful activists use Islam as a basis for their arguments, as the country does not separate religion and state.
However, there are other women who detract from this noble work, insisting that guardianship laws are good and calling for the punishment of women who push for lifting on the ban on driving. Another challenge to the fights is the disagreement amongst pro-activists on how to achieve women’s rights; some seek piecemeal gradual changes, while some fight for radical changes.
The fight for women’s rights is taking shape everyday as more women seek a different kind of life. Social media and the ‘Arab Spring’ have awakened the desire in women and liberal men to fight for better conditions. The women’s movement is taking baby steps but as the Saudi King said, one day women will drive. Therefore, it is not too optimistic to declare that one day a woman will run for the highest elective office.