The Lack of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia is a monarchy that strictly obliges their citizens to comply with the constitution, with the laws of Islam as its foundation. However, the laws in Saudi Arabia were created in accordance to how the kingdom’s councils’ interpreted the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book. According to the council, equality between women and men is against the laws of God and the law of nature dictated by women’s physiology.
These beliefs positioned women in Saudi Arabia subservient to men as restrictions are strictly applied on their way of living. Women in the kingdom live under constant legal and cultural prohibitions, whether in the family or outside their homes. Some of these are the requirement to veil women, the inferior education provided to women, and the lack of freedom of movement. According to Laura Kaya in Polygamy and Law in Contemporary Saudi Arabia, in order to keep modesty for both women and men, women were required to veil themselves (698).
It is said that the concept of veiling does not only protect women’s modesty by being able to reserve their physical appearance solely for their spouse, but it also protects men’s modesty by keeping their minds off impure and lustful thoughts. Women are required to cover their bodies with an abaya, a black and loose cloak that covers the woman’s body from the neck all the way to the feet. In addition to covering their bodies, they are also to cover their hair with head coverings known as the hijab. In exchange of the belief of keeping modesty by covering the body, women did not have the freedom to be clothed the way they wanted.
The concept of veiling may not be perceived as oppressive in itself. If it was legitimately for the purpose of being modest, which is required in the Qur’an, it would merely be an acceptable, cultural norm. However, the problem arises when veiling is forced on women with regimental inflexibility. Sifa Mtango states in A State of Oppression? Women Rights in Saudi Arabia, “Given that the Qur’an requires modest clothing for both men and women, enforcing the rule would not be discriminatory if men in Saudi Arabia were also subject to the same strictness” (54).
Women, who are not properly covered in public, often receive looks of disapproval and are seen as sinful. Religious police usually wander around public buildings or commercial areas to ensure that women are meeting the clothing requirements. They have been given the right to request an uncovered woman to leave the public facility or, in the worst cases, sentence the woman to lashes. Uncovered women are intolerable in Saudi society because they are not following the constitution’s rules of dressing modestly by covering their bodies. In addition to women’s veiling, all public facilities are also segregated as a matter of law.
This segregation means that the services women and men have access to are different, often to women’s detriment. An area in which segregation disadvantages women is in education. Women and men attend separated universities and schools. Women’s facilities are substantially inferior to the men’s. According to Sifa Mtango in A State of Oppression? Women Rights in Saudi Arabia, “Class sizes for women are smaller; teachers for men are better trained, with more than 34% of the professors at the men’s universities holding doctorates, as compared with only 3% of their counterparts at women’s universities” (55).
Access to common facilities, such as libraries, is limited. For instance, Abdallah Elamin reveals in Males’ Attitudes Towards Working Females in Saudi Arabia that at the King Saud University in Riyadh, women are allowed to use the library only one morning every week, and the men use it the rest of the time (750). Girls are educated in inferior conditions to boys, and this denies equal standards that would place them on an equal level. Women, who can only use the library once a week, are denied equal access to what their male counterparts enjoy.
The Saudi attitude toward women’s education is that it is essential that female students be steered toward feminine disciplines, such as there is no need for women to compete with men in disciplines that are not suited to their nature. This firm belief is what continually supports women’s segregation and women’s inferior way of being educated. Another freedom that women of Saudi Arabia do not have is the freedom of movement. Women in the kingdom are subjected into a system where they are required to be accompanied by a male guardian whenever they are outside.
In Empowering Saudi Arabia Women, Delina Hanley says, “This is characterized by many features of differential treatment that may be discriminatory between men and women in marriage, divorce, and related matters” (73). This notion of male guardianship has been extended to restrict women’s movement within and outside Saudi Arabia. Within the country, women are banned from driving, and they are not allowed to travel without the permission of their male guardian and in the company of a male chaperon. The reason women were banned o drive is that driving requires women to unveil themselves, as well as facilitating mixing with unrelated men which would provoke evil deeds and thoughts. Delina Hanley also reports in Empowering Saudi Arabia Women, “In November 1990, some women, who demonstrated against the ban by dismissing their drivers and driving or riding as passengers of women drivers through downtown Riyadh, were immediately arrested, and some religious leaders petitioned for the women to be beheaded” (74). The lack of women’s rights to travel independently was believed to benefit both men and women in protecting their morals and decency.
Women of Saudi Arabia have always been living by the government’s constitution that they are inferior to men, but as years pass by, gradual realizations and little changes have been happening. According to Abdallah Elamin in Males’ Attitudes Towards Females in Saudi Arabia, “The modernist scholars, dismayed by the situation of the Arabian women and the lack of their economic and political participation, encouraged women’s rise and participation and declared that a certain amount of mixing between gender should be expected and accepted. ” (749).
This realization by modern scholars served as a sign of hope for women who desired more freedom in the kingdom. In The Meaning of Rights for Women, Madawi Al-Rashid says, “A new all-women university was created in 2008, and last year, the king pledged that women would be allowed to vote and stand in future municipal elections” (14). In addition, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has been becoming more lenient with the consequences for women’s disobedience to the laws, such as women illegally driving and women not being covered properly in public.
Women caught driving would just be sent home instead of being imprisoned, while women seen inappropriately dressed would be asked to change their clothing instead of being lashed. Inspite of the little and slow changes that has been occurring in Saudi Arabia, the majority of women are still dissatisfied with their lack of rights. Women in Saudi Arabia are denied a number of their human rights as a result of the kingdom’s Islamic laws.
These laws and practices give women an inferior status to men, fixing them with stereotypical roles that are not consisted with the needs of a Saudi woman. The Saudi government states that since the family is still considered as the basic social unit under Islam, it is necessary for women to find a major part of their fulfillment by accepting a primary obligation to the family. Criticism of
Saudi Arabia is not aimed at its culture and religion, but at oppressive ideologies and the injustices that come from the denomination of women. Women’s rights are human rights, and Saudi Arabia has to provide women with these human rights to be considered a just country. With the limited and the gradual changes that are taking place though, women still have a long journey ahead in order to pull away from Saudi Arabia’s legal and cultural prohibition.