Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia

By: Noam Bannet

Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen a car driving agonizingly slow or parked horribly and thought to yourself: “It has to be a woman”. Well, the average conservative Saudi Arabian will never speak this way about his woman’s driving – and that is because women traditionally did not drive in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia (also known as “Saudia”) was established in 1932 and was the House of Saud’s third attempt at founding a nation. The grand idea came in the 18th century in the treaty between the House of Saud and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a fundamentalist theologian from Najd in central Saudi Arabia and founder of the Wahhabism movement

So just how radical is Saudi Arabia? Let’s find out…

Although Iran is the root of most of the fears of states governed by religious law, Saudi Arabia, America’s close ally, is by far more radical. For example, in the London Olympics in 2012, the Saudi kingdom prohibited women from participating, only to concede in the end out of fear that the Olympics Committee will ban all Saudi Arabian athletes in retaliation.

It’s important to note that in addition to being part of the radical Wahhabism ideology, Saudi Arabia is also “the protector of the holy cities”, Mecca and Medina, which adds “religious responsibility” to it as well. The religion dictates the kingdom’s laws. There are other restrictions on women as well, such as the prohibition of women being out in public without escort by a male family memberץ

Although National Women’s Day is in March, in 2017 in Saudi Arabia it was brought forward to February and was even celebrated over three days. They might be 108 years late, but at long last, Saudi Arabia has a National Women’s Day too. In the conference held there, members debated women’s status on the subject of their right to drive and the cessation of the male escort when in public. Princess Al Jawhara, King Salman’s niece, led a debate on women’s place in education.

Many will be shocked to learn that there is no specific law that prohibits women from driving, only one that prohibits them from getting a license. Thus, Saudi women sought to solve this issue by gaining driving license from neighboring countries. Despite the fact that no law prohibits women from driving, women still risked facing fines and even imprisonment. Some hoped that what optimists might call the “Arab Spring” in 2011 might change the situation, as women started multiple campaigns, including posting pictures of women driving in order to change perspective. Yet, all efforts in beginning of the decade had failed.

Over the past few years, awareness and fighting for the improvement of women’s status in Saudi Arabia have grown. In 2013, Hisham Fageeh published a Saudi Arabian version of the music video “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley

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No Woman, No Drive
YouTube player

If there is any optimism to be found, according to the Bloomberg website, there has been an increase of about 50% in the percentage of women who work in Saudi Arabia from 2010-2015. This increase necessitates transportation for the women. One of the solutions to this problem is transportation services, including Uber. Also, a law was passed in 2015 allowing women to vote and be elected for positions on local councils. What’s more, recently, 2 women were appointed for senior positions in the field of commerce. This shows us, that although slow, there is definite progress in Saudi Arabia.

In April 2016, Muhammad bin Nayef, son of King Salman and considered the “most powerful man in Saudi Arabia”, said that Saudi Arabia is not yet ready to end women’s prohibition from driving, however, the reason is a cultural one, not a religious one.

In Carlos Latuf’s caricature, we can see an example of the women’s fight for rights with the Saudi Arabian flag in the background (on it is written the Koran commandment “there is no god other than Allah and Muhhamad is god’s emissary” next to Muhammad’s sword). The caricature shows us the many crossroads that are being and will be reached regarding decisions about women’s status in Saudi Arabia. Only time will tell.

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