Women’s Rights Outside the United States: Saudi Arabia

Recall stories about women’s rights in your lifetime. For a millennial interested in politics and social justice issues, some moments that resonate with me include Nancy Pelosi becoming the first female speaker of the House (2007), Sarah Palin becoming the first woman to run for vice president with the Republican party (2008) and Hillary Clinton becoming the first woman to earn the Democratic presidential nomination (2016). Other monumental events include women fighting in combat positions in the military (2013), women’s marches in the United States and worldwide (2016, 2017), #MeToo movement (2017) and a record number of women in government in 2017 (104 women house members, 21 women Senators and the first Latina female Senator, Catherine Cortez Masto.) The common theme is that all the strides mentioned above occurred in the United States. When was the last time you heard a piece of news regarding the rights of women in Lebanon or Jordan, where both governments recently repealed a law that allowed men accused of rape to avoid punishment if the man was married to the victim of rape, or women in Chile where the Constitutional Tribunal decided to allow abortion in some cases, compared to the previous law that banned abortion completely. Enjoying the privilege of American citizenship, we have the ability to remove ourselves from news and laws that do not affect us. Just because some archaic laws in other countries do not affect us directly does not mean that we should care less about what is happening to our sisters abroad.

This semester, my Politics in Islam class is showcasing some of the injustices women experience in the Middle East. The first country I studied this semester was Saudi Arabia, the most conservative monarchy in the Arab world. Women have little social, political and economic freedoms because the Sunni Saud monarchy stems from an ultra conservative form of Islam, Wahhabism, which attempts to live a holy, Islamic life as the Prophet Muhammad lived in the 7th century AD. Although women’s status has improved greatly in the 21st century, more progress is needed for Saudi women to enjoy more political, social and economic freedoms.

An exceptional year for women’s rights: 2005. It was the 15-year anniversary of Saudi women protesting the ban on driving by driving into Riyadh in 1990. A poll was taken in December 2005, which showed data that 60 percent of men in the kingdom agreed that women should have the right to drive. The ban on forced marriages was lifted due to the high divorce rate. In November of 2005, elections were held for board members of chamber of commerce. Women were allowed to run and to vote for the positions. Two women were elected to a board in Jeddah and two prominent business women were appointed to the board by the Minister of Commerce and Industries.

Following the success for women in 2005, King Muhammad Bin Salman has recently ignited sweeping social and political reforms for Saudi women, which include driving rights, right to attend sporting events and military involvement. In January in Jeddah, a city on the coast of the Red Sea in the Hejaz region, women were allowed to attend soccer games for the first time in the history of the Gulf kingdom. Although the women were separate from the men in the stadium, their presence at the game symbolized a trend toward increased rights for Saudi women that began in 2017 and will continue in 2018. Some women expressed their joy for newly recognized social freedoms for a BBC news article about the soccer game. Ruwayda Ali Qassem, a Jeddah resident, said, “It was a historic day in the kingdom which culminates (in) ongoing fundamental changes. I am proud and extremely happy for this development and for the kingdom's moves to catch up with civilized measures adopted by many countries.”

The conservative Saudi monarchy is the only country in the world that bans women from driving. Religious conservatives have expressed different degrading opinions on why women should not be allowed to drive, from “they are too stupid to drive” to “it will lead to intolerable mingling of the sexes.” Women who drive in public risk being arrested and fined, but this did not stop a group of women from driving into the capital, Riyadh, in 1990 to protest the outrageous ban. Finally, the protests and outrages from inside the Saudi community and abroad will result in concrete, progressive change for women living under the monarchy. King Salman issued a decree that will now allow women to drive, which will be implemented into society by June 24, 2018, according to a BBC news article. Women will not be required to have male permission to take driving lessons and will be able to drive freely. Despite this step toward progress, there is still much work to be done for women’s social rights in Saudi Arabia. Although women will be freely driving in 2018, women cannot freely travel without permission from a male.

Women in Saudi Arabia have until March 1st to apply for non-combat, security positions in the Saudi military in the providences of Riyadh, Mecca, al-Qassim and Medina. To be eligible for the military, a woman must be a Saudi citizen between the ages of 25-35, have a high school diploma and a male guardian (brother, husband, son or father) must have a place of residence in the same providence where the woman would be stationed. Enrollment in the military is another step King Salman has taken in order to bring the patriarchal monarchy up to speed with the 21st century.

After reading the recent achievements for Saudi women, take a moment to reflect upon some of the things that you consider being normal or an inherent right, such as driving or attending a soccer game. If you would like to stay more up-to-date on women’s rights in the Middle East or just news in general, I suggest the BBC News app. It is free with an unlimited number of articles!