According to many, Saudi Arabia was one of the worst countries around the world in terms of women’s rights, with a long list of prohibitions for women.
It might be the only country that expressed general reservations towards the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, and often described as an international bill of rights for women.
Thus, Saudi women have suffered a lot and have gone a long way to gain their rights. But the year 2017 witnessed radical changes in terms of women’s rights that continue in 2018, starting with allowing women to drive, the edict declaring women are not obliged to wear abayas, and the declaration of vacancies for women in Saudi Public Prosecution in the rank of “investigating lieutenant.”
After hearing or reading about these changes and the dramatic changes that Saudi Arabia has made, many questions came to mind, including what other radical changes have happened? What was the kingdom’s history in dealing with women’s issues? What are the reasons for all these radical changes? What is the feedback of people there? What decisions do women still await from the Saudi government? What are the benefits of empowering women? Daily News Egypt takes a deep dive into the world of Saudi women.
Saudi Arabia was role model for masculine control
The main pillar in women’s life in Saudi Arabia is the “guardian”, which lead to unlimited exploitation by men, to the level of depriving women from from basic rights and dreams.
Saudi law stipulates that all females must have a “guardian”, usually a father, brother, husband, or son, and all females need the permission of the guardian for marriage and divorce, travel, work, opening a bank account, and even to approve elective surgeries.
Saudi women did not give up but tried more than once to oppose their situation, leading the government to make an amendment only concerning approving travel and passport issuances. Now, if a Saudi woman’s guardian “refuses” her request to travel or obtain a passport, she can turn to a judge for urgent matters to give her the right without the guardian’s consent, unless this guardian has a “convincing reason” for prevention.
When one reviews the history of the country in dealing with women’s issues, they may be surprised that Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world that prevented women from driving.
However, a large segment of women have opposed this as unjustified, trying more than once to gain their rights to drive, but all these trials always ended with arrests, prevention from travelling, dismissal from jobs, and even guardians being arrested, accused of failing to control their women.
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia was not the only country that prevented women from attending football matches, though it was in an exclusive two-member club with Iran.
In addition to the strict controls on mixing with the other sex, girls in schools were deprived of attending sports classes, veils are imposed on all women, and girls are banned from riding bicycles.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia limited some jobs to men only, banning women from entering them.
2017 was the year of women achievements
Saudi Arabia’s government faced much harsh criticism for all these forms of discrimination against women. As a result, some radical changes have begun, like granting women the right to vote and run for for the first time in the country’s history in municipal elections, during which at least 18 women won seats.
Meanwhile, King Abdullah had also appointed 30 women to the country’s top advisery body, the Shura Council.
Prior to that, in 2013, the Saudi government toughed laws on domestic violence.
However, the most radical changes came in 2017, with many wondering: why now?
Perhaps the most prominent change was the long-awaited decision of allowing Saudi women to drive, which was issued by royal decree on 26 September.
This decision was preceded by the appointment of the first female spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy in Washington DC, Fatimah Baeshen.
Moreover, last August, the Saudi Ministry of Justice announced four historic decisions, relating to the protection of minors, divorcees who wish to retain custody of their children, and law graduates who could not practice their profession.
Days after the decree allowing women to drive, on 30 September, officials in Saudi Arabia announced that the authorities will allow women to attend sporting events with their families, starting in 2018, in three major cities: Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam. January marked the first time Saudi women were able to watch a game in person in Jeddah.
Meanwhile, last October, Saudi authorities announced that they would also allow women to attend concerts.
Furthermore, last December, the Saudi minister of culture and media issued instructions prohibiting the broadcast of any series or programmes that include explicit or implicit abuse of women.
Finally, days ago, Saudi Mufti Abdullah al-Mutlaq stated that women are not required to wear abayas on his weekly radio programme.
Al-Mutlaq is a member of the highest jurisprudence committee in the country which issues religious edicts. He said that as long as women wear modest clothing that does not reveal details of their bodies, they are free to wear any sort of clothes, as long as they match Islamic requirements, adding that women are not obligated to wear abayas, which are loose-fitting robes.
On the other hand, the law in Saudi Arabia requires women to wear abayas in public places.
The Saudi Public Prosecution issued a declaration announcing the availability of vacancies for women at the rank of “investigating lieutenant.”
In comparison, 2017 was the year of women in Egypt, achieving many things, including appointment of the first women governor, minister of tourism, minister of culture, and the cabinet having six female ministers at once.
But Egypt, up until now, suffers from the State Council’s continuous refusal to appointment women among its ranks. Meanwhile, 2007 was the year when the first batch of female judges was appointed in Egypt—30 of them—but they were also not appointed to the State Council.
Reasons behind radical changes
The reasons why these changes are occurring now can be examined through a social, political, and economic lens.
The political one is that the kingdom, in general, is witnessing a movement towards modernising Saudi society, under a plan led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as Vision 2030.
Vision 2030 includes granting greater freedoms to Saudi women, easing the strict rules they have long faced on the basis of gender.
An Egyptian feminist who lives in Saudi Arabia, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, told Daily News Egypt that women’s rights, especially depriving women from driving, has recently become a pressure card in the hands of international human rights organisations to use against the kingdom.
This has pushed the kingdom to make reforms in terms of women’s rights in order to keep pace and achieve the goals of the economic openness adopted by bin Salman, so there is a great intention by the government to provide more freedoms, as it seeks to present itself as more in tune with global norms.
Alexandra Kinias, a feminist and founder of the page and website Women of Egypt, pointed to two issues in Saudi Arabia that are causing these changes. One is economical and the second is social. “Just think of how much money is wasted every month by Saudi households just to pay for their drivers,” she said.
“There are about 1.4 million private drivers working in the kingdom, with an average salary of $500 per month, plus accommodation and food,” she explained. “That translates to a minimum of $700m per month because the clerics don’t want women to drive. What economy can sustain that?” she questioned.
On the social aspect, she explained that there is a whole new generation of young Saudis who are well-educated and well-travelled, who have different views on life from the ailing regime. “Bin Salman is one of them, thus this generation want to live in the 21st century, not in medieval times,” she said.
Farida El Nakash, also a feminist and a writer, agreed with Kinias, explaining that at least the middle class in Saudi Arabia, especially women, “travelled the world and learned in Europe, the US, and Egypt. When they returned to the kingdom with new ideas, it was impossible to reconcile with the closed society which was created by the Wahhabis, controlled by falsely tightened religiousness. So Saudi Arabia should create reforms to meet these new ideas.”
Obstacles and benefits of women empowerment
“These reforms for women will certainly improve the economy. There are hundreds of thousands of jobs open to women, but they can’t afford to hire drivers to take them to work,” Kinias said.
She continued that more women will join the workforce, leaving more money in the hands of people, translating to raising productivity of the government, which will impact the overall economic growth of the country.
Concerning further challenges, she said they will be how to improve women’s status further, adding that women in Saudi Arabia still have a long way to go.
“For starters, they have to advocate harder to abolish the male guardianship laws; they also need reforms in the divorce and child custody laws,” she asserted.
El Nakash said, “Muslim communities in general suffer from a major contradiction regarding women’s emancipation, because the reactionary forces will not disappear yet from Saudi Arabia or the Islamic world in general. These forces strongly resist any reforms for the benefit of women, especially the Wahhabi ideology, which is always against women and has corrupted political and social life throughout the region, not only in Saudi Arabia.”
She continued that, on the other hand, people aligned with new globalisation ideologies are accepting of these changes and are also strongly resistant. “There will be a continuous conflict between the reactionary and globalist forces,” she said.
While the Egyptian woman who lives there said that these decisions will save her money and provide her job opportunities as she could train Saudi women to drive, in addition to saving herself a driver’s salary.
Saudi and Egyptian expatriate women’s feedback
The feedback on social media is representative of the previous mentioned struggle between the two powers, where some praised the decrees, and others are still reluctant to accept these reforms.
This feedback was reinforced by the Egyptian woman who lives there, who said she is afraid of the negative effects that may occur in the kingdom as a result of the blatant transformation that is coming to it after being a very closed society for so long.
She added, “until recently, Saudi women were limited to being doctors, nurses, teachers, and working in banks. In recent years, the Ministry of Labour has banned the employment of non-Saudi women in lingerie shops and other shops where women’s clothing and perfumes are sold.”
On the other hand, another Egyptian woman journalist who lives in the kingdom, who also requested anonymity, told DNE that she is very happy about the reforms, explaining there are many difficulties in her field, including the opposition of a large number of men to cooperating with her work, which requires interviews and telephone calls.
“Some men even refuse to meet me because they do not accept mixing with women,” she continued.
President of Arab Women Organisation, Mervat Al-Talawy, said, in a press release, “Saudi Arabia is taking a historical path towards the empowerment of women,” praising the reforms it took, stressing that these steps will lead to a great renaissance.
She said that the Saudi prosecution decision is an important addition to the outstanding legislative achievements of women in Saudi Arabia, reflecting the political leadership’s belief in the importance of their role in society and the need to eliminate any discrimination between them and men.
What decisions do Saudi women await in order to say they have full rights?
Despite the relative progress, with male guardianship very much still a reality, women may have a long road ahead.
“No women in the Middle East will have full rights in the near future—if ever—not just Saudi women,” Kinias said.
Conversely, El Nakash is optimistic that all these rights will be discussed on the table, saying what will decide the result of these decisions is the balance of the two powers that she mentioned previously.
All these reforms, in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, are just a step in the right direction, but women still await greater economic empowerment all over the Arab world.