The Changing Face of Saudi Women: The Sight of the Bigger Picture

In recent years there is some good news coming from Saudi Arabia. For instance, allowing women to drive. Saudi Arabia had been the last country in the world in which women were banned from driving a fact that was frequently used by critics as proof that female citizens of Saudi Arabia were among the worlds most repressed. Recently 300 Saudi women for the first time join the throng at Jeddah’s Pearl Stadium to cheer Saudi Premier League football team Al-Ahli from the stands. On September 2017 women were also allowed to celebrate the 87th anniversary of the founding of the kingdom, women were also allowed to attend a concert in Jeddah. Recently one of well-known Saudi clerics Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, said that it is not compulsory for women to wear Abaya (covering full body including the face with black). In the most recent case, Tamadurbint Youssef al-Ramah became the first female deputy labor minister, a rare high-level job for a woman. Also now women in Saudi can apply for positions with the rank of soldier in the provinces of Riyadh, Mecca, al-Qassim, and Medina but still discriminatory practice is there, for instance, women who apply for this position should not be married to Non-Sunni (Shia).


read more Women in politics: overcoming the gender disparity


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Saudi Arabia’s women activists have campaigned for years to be allowed to drive. A civil disobedience campaign in the 1990s saw many women arrested at a time when the government was fearful of the Islamist opposition. During the Arab spring, a new #Women2Drive campaign rose up through social media with activists like Manal al-Sharif. In 2011 Manal al-Sharif was jailed for daring to drive. Her crime, written right there on the charge sheet: “driving while female”. She filmed herself driving a car and posted it on YouTube. Afterward, she was arrested, briefly detained, then sacked, harassed and subjected to death threats before she left Saudi Arabia. From 2011 Sharif and another woman, Najla al-Hariri became global figureheads of a cause that drew the attention of global leaders, who had urged the kingdom to overturn the ban.

Working women requires transport, and Saudi Arabia has virtually no public transport. They also need permission from a male family member to travel, study, work, marry and perform a myriad of other things western women take for granted. Khalid Alkhudair, chief executive of Glowork, an employment agency serving women, said there were about 400,000 to 450,000 job opportunities open for women in the retail industry, but many could not afford to hire drivers to take them to works the removing bans on women driving assist in the mobility of hundreds of thousands of women which one of their obstacles was transportation, so this is a move toward women mobility.

As Saudi has the long history of oppression of women voices. By such reforms, it wants to recreate its image in Arab and rest of the world. The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia for being regional hegemon made Saudi to be a step ahead of Iran on one of the debated issues which are women right. Mohammad Bin Salman style himself as the modernizer and make his personal image as an agent of change. Saudi princes, including the late King Abdullah, were assumed to have no personal or ideological problem with women driving and they bring the reason that society was against it. The puzzle is how society suddenly changed. Prince Mohammed tries to bring the new model based on nationalism, economic development and remove the old model which relies on oil and clerics. By lifting the restriction on women right Saudi wants to remove its negative image internationally. These reforms need to be appreciated, but from another side, Saudi Arabia is still one of the abusers of human right. These all show a dichotomy in Saudi’s policy toward the human right.

As Amnesty International argues one should not lose sight of the bigger picture: Saudi Arabia remains one of the world’s worst abusers when it comes to human rights. Such as use of the death penalty, cracking down on freedom of expression, persecuting the Shi’a minority, systematic discrimination against women, killing civilians in Yemen conflict. Women in Saudi Arabia still do not have the rights to marry, to open a bank account, to get a fair trial, to travel, to dress how they want, to seek important medical treatment, to have custody of children. According to Amnesty International, these recent reform is undoubtedly a step forward for Saudi Arabian women, and a testament to the women’s rights activists who campaigned for their rights for many years, it is extremely overdue and does not make up for the fact that they face widespread discrimination in other walks of life. There are many obstacles to their employment, such as a male guardianship system. Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system remains intact despite government reforms. Under this system, adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian usually a husband, father, brother, or son to travel, marry, or be released from prison. They may be required to provide guardian consent to get a job or health care.

As the leader of the eight-nation coalition on March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia has committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen. Human Rights Watch has documented 87 unlawful attacks by the coalition, some of which may amount to war crimes that killed nearly 1,000 civilians, and hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques in Yemen. Also, Saudi Arabia executed 133 people between January and early December 2017. Saudi Arabia does not tolerate public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam. The government systematically discriminates against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelve Shia and Ismailis, including in public education, the justice system, religious freedom, and employment despite Mohammad bin Salman’s pledge that Saudi Arabia would return to a more form of moderate Islam.


read more A Quick Look through the Gender Lens



Zarifa Sabet
Kabul, Afganistan.
She has completed Masters degree in International Relations from South Asian University, New Delhi, India




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