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Saudi – Women In The Kingdom

saudi

‘This is a man’s world’. Nowhere are James Brown’s words truer than in Saudi Arabia. While most women in Europe and America have the option to choose their careers and have equal rights, female Saudis in this Islamic monarchy that leads using strict ‘sharia’ law are still officially considered second class citizens. Their primary role is to support the man of the family and to bring up the children.

Saudi Arabia is a high income economy, its main products being oil, gas and other natural reserves. Its people have grown hugely wealthy due to the world’s reliance on oil. In a country filled with such riches, life should be wonderful for all 26 million of its citizens. However, the lack of equality for women in the Kingdom is shocking by today’s developed world’s standards. A quick browse of random websites on the internet throws up numerous examples of the injustices heaped upon women born into the constraints of life in the Kingdom. But women are standing up against this inequality, beginning to clamour for change.

A striking fact about life in Saudi Arabia is that today, women still do not have the right to vote. There are very few places left in the world where this is still a reality. In Saudi Arabia, there has been enormous pressure over the last few years to change this. 2015 will see women finally being permitted to cast their vote. ‘A royal decree, issued in 2011, will let women vote in Saudi elections in 2015’ according to the Washington Post. They will also have the right to run for office, a key step forward in the battle to change the rules.

Certain women in Saudi Arabia are fighting against the system and are managing to forge careers for themselves. However in doing so, there are huge barriers for them to overcome. For example, in the buildings where the few women that work in the financial sector can be found, there is always a separate entrance created solely for them to come and go. They are not allowed to use the main entrance to the building, as this is devoted to men only. This is reminiscent of segregation of blacks and whites in apartheid-era South Africa, arguably more difficult to comprehend as this segregation is at a family rather than at a race level. Unemployment figures speak volumes – 6% for men against 36% for women.

Women are not permitted to travel outside of the country without a guardian, who must give written consent for them to leave the country. The Saudi Gazette comments that ‘For many guardians, women are idle human beings who should not work or produce without their consent. ‘   ‘Married women require their husband’s permission to depart the country, while unmarried women and children require the permission of their father or male guardian’ notes Travel.State.gov.

Notwithstanding the fact that women should be allowed to come and go as they please and have the same freedoms as men, another point of relevance is the administrative nightmare that such restrictions create for the Saudi public sector. One small change to this system has been reported by Arab News (14th January 2014): ‘Saudi women have applauded the decision….to suspend the electronic system to notify male guardians about the departure and arrival [in and out of the country] of their female dependents’. It seems having an electronic system to monitor women’s movements proved too much of a headache to manage. Ominously, the authorities talk about re-introducing this system on an optional basis. A disappointing caveat to an otherwise positive development.

Women need special permission to attend school to gain an education. Women who are lucky enough to be allowed to gain an education are not permitted to take part in school sporting activities. This is prohibited on religious grounds. Raha al-Moharrak is an example of one woman who is challenging this, having been the first Saudi female to scale Everest.

Freedoms are also restricted in terms of what clothing a woman can wear. ‘Women are required by law to wear long black abayas and head coverings in public’. For this very reason, popular in Saudi Arabia are hand jewellery and henna hand painting. A visit to any mall is evidence of this, as women strive to find ways to stylise or differentiate themselves in some small way.

A particularly concerning area of inequality is the permitted beatings of women, if men perceive that a woman has been acting irresponsibly. This is entirely subjective and represents carte blanche acceptance of domestic violence. ‘Although a landmark domestic violence law was introduced this year, activists have called it toothless because judges may decide a man is within his rights to beat his wife, daughter or sister if he disapproves of her behavior. ‘   The police will turn a blind eye, as the man as guardian has the right to treat the woman as he sees fit.

It is currently illegal for women to drive in the Kingdom (Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world to ban women from driving). They are however charged with ‘the responsibility of educating and raising awareness of safe driving among their husbands, sons and brothers. Women should educate themselves about traffic rules so that they can guide their families’ according to Arab News.   There is such hypocrisy in putting the onus on women to educate the men of the family in how to drive, yet in contrast not permitting women behind the wheel themselves.

Some women are starting to flout this ban and are driving and promoting their actions on various social media websites. A ‘nationwide day of defiance [was held] on Dec. 28 [2013]’ (The Wall Street Journal).   New legislation was recently passed (mid-December 2013) giving the police more powers in these types of situations. Female drivers are classed as ‘disturbing the public order’ and it is now easier for the police to arrest them. This change in legislation aims to discourage more women from protesting in this way.

There has been a notable rise in protests against various Saudi restrictions, such as the recent demonstrations against the driving ban. The Guardian reports that in October 2013, ‘more than 60 Saudi women got behind the wheels of their cars as part of a protest against a ban on women driving in the Kingdom’. The stand appeared to have been uncontested by the police, perhaps implying a tacit acceptance that this ban needs to ultimately be removed. However, other sources indicate that some women were very recently arrested for attempting to drive in defiance of the ban.

‘In Jeddah, police arrested 34-year-old Shaima al-Jastania as she drove to a hospital on May 19 to receive an injection. On September 27 Judge Abd al-Majid al-Luhaidan of the Summary Court sentenced her to 10 lashes for violating public order’ (www.hrw.org). NPR corroborates this story. Change appears to be very slow, and defiance of the strict laws can have serious consequences.

On a positive note, there are some areas where women experience more freedoms in Saudi. This is typically only seen in the more wealthy families however. Slate.com uncovered evidence of women who stated that: ‘We have our freedoms. We do what we like. They were almost entirely from middle to upper-middle class families. They mostly didn’t have to worry about money or work at all”.

Is the tide slowly turning in Saudi Arabia?   HNGN reported recently that the ‘First Female Law Firm Opens in Saudi Arabia’. Four women were approved as lawyers for the first time ever and three of those were permitted shortly afterwards to begin practicing in their own law firm. Changes like this are key to moving Saudi Arabia into a more modern era. It is amendments to legislation will slowly improve the status of women.

From male minders and no female vote to clothing restrictions and a ban on driving – life as a woman in the affluent Saudi Arabia in the main is most definitely difficult by today’s standards. There are small, painfully slow changes being made but not enough to be able to say that the country will look markedly different in five to ten years time. BBC News reports that ‘the key issue for women’s rights campaigners of male guardianship remains off limits for now ‘. There is a long road ahead for the women who are brave enough to fight against the male dominance in the Kingdom.

Image courtesy of clickrally.com

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  1. Reblogged this on Stand Strong Girls and commented:
    I found this a few days ago and it ties in nicely with my page about Saudi Arabia in World Wide Women so I thought I’d share it. Thanks to Irish News Review for the post.

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