Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia Essay


Western world acknowledges that Muslim women lack freedom and rights. They are supposed to cover their bodies and faces, they should be accompanied by a male guardian, they are not allowed to drive, etc. Saudi Arabia is considered the most masculine state in the world and men consider women as their property. Nevertheless, the Eastern world is very different from the Western, and the things, which are unacceptable in Europe and the U.S., might be normal for Saudi Arabian women. Women believe their traditional dress code is a positive thing, as it saves them from sexual harassment; however, they strongly require reformation of employment and educational systems and laws. Despite the fact that the level of literacy and university graduation is extremely high among women in this country, they are underestimated and suffer from unemployment. Therefore, it is highly important to understand what are the major traditional, cultural and religion reasons for limiting female freedom and rights in Saudi Arabia and which spheres should be reformed as soon as possible.

Keywords: Saudi Arabia, women, freedom, rights, education, employment, gender separation, dress code.

Women and Freedom: The Experience of Saudi Arabia

Imagine a world, where all women are dressed in their black gowns and are supposed to have their faces fully covered. Muslim women in Saudi Arabia are used to this custom. The astonishing fact is that in this country the restriction in cultural and social norms and other practices spreads across the board overshadowing all women. Therefore, the topic on Women and Freedom in Saudi Arabia is wide and complex because it focuses on Islamic culture and traditions and the Middle East customary practices. Therefore, this paper, which is well equipped with facts and literature, will discuss the ideologies of women and freedom as it reflects on women’s experience of Saudi Arabia.

General Statistics and Facts

The rights of women in Saudi Arabia are restricted comparing to numerous neighboring countries. According to the Global Gender Gap Report, presented in 2013, Saudi Arabia was ranked 127th among 136 countries regarding gender equality. All females of all ages are supposed to have a special male guardian. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world, which forbids females to drive. Moreover, according to the statistics in 2014 the country’s native labor force comprised only 13 percent of Saudi women.

The world of women in Saudi Arabia is different from other surrounding areas. Saudi Arabia is known for its strong laws derived from the Islamic law that urges women to cover their faces. Women are bound to the traditions. According to studies done by Bowen, women in Saudi Arabia have lost a touch even in their own community. While their presence is evident, it does not seem to be effectual. This is because of the lifestyle they are subjected to. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the status of women has altered during the last decades. Females were formerly prohibited from voting or being elected, however, in 2011 King Abdullah announced that females would be capable to vote starting from 2015. The statistics demonstrates that there are more female university graduates than male ones in Saudi Arabia. In addition, women`s literacy level is higher than that of men, and accounts for 91 percent. These figures are much higher than figures of previous decades.

A lot of conservative females from Saudi Arabia do not sustain attenuation of traditional gender functions and limitations due to the fact that their country is believed to be the closest to a perfect and impeccable Islamic nation. In addition, they are afraid of the imported valuables taken from the Western world. There are numerous factors, which outline women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, including government regulations, the Wahhabi and Hanbali interpretations of the Sunni Islam, compared with the conservative national traditions typical for the Arabian Peninsula. As a matter of fact, all gender functions typical for the Saudi community appeared from the Sharia, known as the Islamic law. This law is grounded on the Quran and Prophet Muhammad’s teachings. This regulation is majorly unrecorded, which provides judges with serious optional force, which is typically utilized in favor of tribal customs. Saudi women, who support traditional gender functions, urge that attenuation of the prohibition for female to drive and work with males, is a constituent of the pressure of Westernized ideas, which will deplete Islam. They believe that their country has a unique requirement for conservative valuables due to the fact that it is the center of Islam. A lot of Saudi female advocates of government reform renounce international criticism of Saudi restrictions concerning female rights, as international community fails to understand the singularity of the Saudi society. These critics announce that they do not need female rights as those supported by the Western lifestyle and valuables, as they desire to have the rights in accordance with the Islamic teachings. There is a high need to demonstrate various Saudi law restrictions and limitations concerning female rights.

Male Guardians

Thus, Saudi law requires that all women have a specific guardian man, known as Wali. This should be a woman’s father or brother. When a woman gets married, her husband, called mahram, performs this function. Therefore, girls and women are not allowed to travel, conduct formal business, or undergo particular medical procedures without approbation from their guardian men. In fact, this guardian has obligations to control women and their rights in numerous aspects of life. Therefore, women may require their guardian man’s allowance for marriage and divorce; for travelling in case when she is under the age of 45; for getting education; for employment; for opening a personal bank account and for a surgery, especially when it is sexual in nature. Some of the regulations have changed. The law concerning the requirement of a guardian’s allowance regarding employment was repealed in 2008. However, this is only the law, while the custom has not changed.

On the other hand, the Saudi Arabian government executed a new policy strengthening traveling limitations for Saudi women in 2012. This new policy allowed Saudi Arabian men to get a special text message on their mobile phones when a female under their guard leaves the country. This message comes to their mobile phone even when a woman travels with her guardian man. There are a number of examples, which demonstrate a significance of these permissions. For example, there was a situation in 2013 when a woman was not allowed to have an amputation of a seriously injured hand, as she did not have a legal guardian who could authorize this procedure. Her husband died in the same car crash, and she was deprived of the guardian. Another example demonstrates that a 34-year old woman who had a happy marriage, approved by her father, had to divorce her husband. Her half-brother, who decided to utilize his power as her guardian man, initiated this idea. The main reason of this divorce concerned the fact that the husband had a lower tribal status than this woman`s family. The woman was afraid to be sent back to her brother’s home, as she feared domestic violence. She had to spend four years in jail before the Supreme Judicial Council canceled this resolution. These are minor, but serious examples, when guardianship requirements solidly ruin women`s lives. In fact, they do not belong to the recorded laws. They are utilized in accordance with the traditions and cognition of specific administrators and facilities, including hospitals, police stations, etc. Formal transactions and complaints performed by women are frequently rejected due to the fact that administrators, or the women themselves, think that they require permissions from their guardians. Administrators or officials are allowed to require the presence of a guardian when a woman is not able to demonstrate her ID card. These circumstances make the process of making complaints against guardian men highly complicated.

A number of Saudi females believe that male guardianship is their “right”. They defend this regulation, as it provides them with defense and love. In fact, the Saudi government has ratified international and domestic declarations concerning female rights, and urged that there is no official legislation regarding men guardianship. Formally, it protects itself and sustains that multinational agreements are appertained in the courts. On the other hand, international organizations together with NGOs are skeptical, as the Saudi government announces one fact during the United Nations Human Rights Council and executes different things within the country. Saudi collocutors informed a UN investigator that multinational agreements have little or no weight in Saudi courts.

Men guardianship is closely connected to namus (can be translated as “honor”). Namus of a man incorporates defense of women in his family. He provides for them and in turn, the women’s honor reflects on him. Due to the fact that namus of a man is influences by women under his protection, he is supposed to manage and control their conduct. If women’s honor is lost, the community believes that the man has lost his control. Namus is related to honor killing. If a male forfeits namus due to his women, he might try to purify his honor by punishing her. If a man believes a case to be extreme, he can apply death as a punishment. The minor mistrust and suspicion concerning a woman’s delinquencies can be enough for her to be subjected to violence in the name of honor.

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Dress Code

The second major restriction of female rights concerns clothes. A hijab is known to be a traditional Islamic norm according to which females are supposed to dress in a modest way and cover themselves with outer garments when they have to go out or walk among men. Saudi Arabia is considers to be different from numerous Islamic communities in regard to covering, which it believed to be an appropriate hijab as it is reinforced by the Mutaween and religious police. Therefore, women are supposed to cover everything except their hands and eyes. A woman’s face is not supposed to be covered in numerous Islam countries. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and some other Arab countries believe that all of a woman`s body is considered awrah (not meant to be exposed) except eyes and hands. Therefore, the majority of women are supposed to wear the hijab (known as head covering), a total black cloak, known as an abaya, and a specific face-veil. As a rule, a woman’s garments are not allowed to demonstrate any part of her body. It has to be stiff, light, tight, and loose. These garments should not resemble men’s clothes. Stiffness of the dress code is different in various regions. For instances, numerous women walk with their faces uncovered in Jeddahat at the same time when women in Riyadh are more conservative.

Appropriate dress code for a Muslim woman

Figure 1. Appropriate dress code for a Muslim woman 

Figure 1 visually demonstrates that the attitude towards a dress code is different in different Muslim countries. Some of them are more conservative and traditional, while others have a tendency to become more modernized. There are shops, which market designer abayas that have such elements as flaring sleeves or a tighter shape. There are fashionable colored abayas, which can be decorated with various patterns and pieces of sparkling materials. This is an important step; moreover, dress code regulations are not that strict as they used to be. Despite the fact that the dress code is frequently believed to be a highly obvious symbol of oppression by the Western world people, Saudi women rank the dress code low on the list of antecedents for reforming or removing it completely. Many women announce that they want to wear a veil. They mention Islamic piety, pride in family traditions and less sexual harassment from male colleagues. This type of dress code is considered a constituent of the right to modesty, guaranteed by Islam.

Gender Segregation

Sexual segregation, which does not allow women to communicate with stranger men, comes from the high level of concern for female innocence and family honor. Social occasions are greatly based on the gender segregation. Women who are observed communicating with a man, who is not their relative, can be persecuted by the mutaween, and even charged with infidelity, adultery or sex trade. The majority of Saudi homes have two different entrances, one of which is supposed to be used by men and another by women. For non-related men to enter in the female sections of a Saudi home is an infringement of family honor. Private space is associated with women while the public space, including the living room, is associated with men. Moreover, even houses are designed in such a way that they hide women from the public using high walls, compartmentalized inner rooms, and curtains. In addition, sex segragation is also seen in public. In banks, restaurants and other public places of Saudi Arabia, women are supposed to come in and exit via a particular door. Due to the fact that the public sector of life is the major domain of men, women should veil outside the private sections of their homes. Non-mahram women and men should minimize their social interactions. Different organizations are expected to create all-women locations, in case they employ women. Moreover, public transportation is also separated. In addition, such public places as beaches or amusement parks are separated as well. Sometimes they are separated using time, which will allow men and women attend them at different hours. The notion of separation is especially strict in restaurants, due to the fact that the process of eating requires removing the veil. The majority of the Saudi Arabian restaurants have “family” and “bachelor” sectors, the latter are created for unmarried men without a family or a companion. Waiters should give time for women to cover their faces before entering in the family sectors. Women who come without their husbands or mahram are usually forbidden to enter restaurants, or they are allowed to sit only in the family section. Finally, women are prohibited from working as waitresses; the only exception is women-only restaurants.

Employment and Education

The facts demonstrate that Saudi Arabian women stand for 18.6 percent of the native labor force. The ration of employment has increased from 15.3 percent in 1990 to 18.6 percent in 2011. However, if foreign emigrant employees are included in the total sum, the number of working Saudi females decreases to 6.1%. The figures of other Muslim countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are much higher and stand for 40 percent.

Level of unemployment in Saudi Arabia

Figure 2. Level of unemployment in Saudi Arabia

Figure 2 demonstrates that the country underutilizes women`s capacities and skills. The level of female unemployment is much higher as compared to other Muslim countries. At the same time, women constitute 70 percent of the students in all Saudi institutes of higher education. Some jobs, which are performed by women in almost all other countries of the world, are purely reserved for men in Saudi Arabia.

Employment for Saudi women has numerous limitations according to the country’s regulations and traditions. Firstly, women’s work should be considered suitable for their mentality and physical state. Women are permitted to work only in facilities, where they can serve women only. Thus, there should be no communications or interactions with the opposite gender. A work performed by a woman should not make her leave the country without a close male relative. This is a serious problem, as women are not supposed to drive, while public transportation is quite limited. Female literacy is believed to be 81 percent, which demonstrates that this figure is similar to that of men. For instance, in 1970 only 2 percent of women were literate. More women obtain secondary- and tertiary-education than men, while 60 percent of all Saudi university graduates are women. Moreover, 50 percent of employed females have a college education, comparing to only 16 percent of men. Finally, the percentage of Saudi women graduating from universities is greater than in Western countries. Nevertheless, the quality of education is lower for women than men. Textbooks and various materials are updated less frequently, while teachers demonstrate a tendency to be less proficient. Men have better research facilities in the process of obtaining higher education. Official policy emphasizes religion in the education of girls. The major objective of educating a girl is to breed her in an appropriate Islamic way so she will be able to execute her duties in life, become an ideal and successful housewife and a good mother, prepared to perform such obligations as nursing, teaching, medical treatment, etc, which will suit her true nature. As a matter of fact, Saudi women frequently identify education as the most crucial sphere for women’s rights reform.

Domestic Violence

Traditionally, violence against females in the home was not observed as a criminal case in Saudi Arabia until 2013. In 2013, Saudi Arabia launched its first key endeavor against domestic violence, which is known as “No More Abuse” advertisement campaign. In the same year, the country’s government passed a regulation, which had made domestic violence a criminal offence for the first time. The regulation presupposes a punishment in a form of one year in prison and a fine of up to 50,000 riyals ($13,000). The maximum punishments can be doubled for repeat offenders. The regulation appoints criminal liability for psychological, sexual and physical abuse.

The current research paper demonstrated that Saudi Arabia is a country full of concerns. Despite the fact that the country started reforming women`s freedoms, a lot of spheres are still in a highly complicated condition. A lot of these restrictions are traditional and religious in their nature and are not supported by the country’s law. The differences between the Western and the Eastern worlds are obvious and they repulse their lifestyles and valuables. Nevertheless, the Western ideas concerning women’s rights violations do not always concise with ideas of Saudi women about the same. For instance, dress code is believed to be the rights` violation for the Western world, while Saudi Arabian women are not against it. They believe it to be a sign of modesty, their personal right and their protection from sexual harassment. Saudi Arabian women are more concerned with domestic violence, educational inequalities, inability to drive, and employment problems. These are the spheres, which should be reformed as soon as possible.

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