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Gender roles in Saudi society come from Sharia (Islamic law) and tribal culture. The Arabian peninsula is the ancestral home of patriarchal, nomadic tribes, in which purdah (separation of women and men) and namus (honor) are central.

All women, regardless of age, are required to have a male guardian. Women cannot vote or be elected to high political positions.[1] It is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving. The World Economic Forum 2009 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 130th out of 134 countries for gender parity. It was the only country to score a zero in the category of political empowerment. The report also noted that Saudi Arabia is one of the few Middle Eastern countries to improve from 2008, with small gains in economic opportunity.[2]

There is evidence that many women in Saudi Arabia do not want radical change. Even many advocates of reform reject Western critics, for "failing to understand the uniqueness of Saudi society." [3][4][5] Journalist Maha Akeel is a frequent critic of her country's patriarchal customs. Nonetheless, she agrees that Westerners criticize what they do not understand. "Look, we are not asking for ... women's rights according to Western values or lifestyles ... We want things according to what Islam says. Look at our history, our role models."[6]


I believe in equal right for everyone according to their circumstances ... Women do have rights, but they are based on our view of their obligations in life. —Dr. Saleh al-Sheikh, Minister for Islamic affairs[7]

I like to drive. Here, the woman cannot drive. And I like here to have a cinema ... a movie ... I like to be free. All people want to be free. —Anonymous college student [7]

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia are defined by Islam and tribal customs. Islamic law (sharia) is based on the Qur'an and hadith (teachings of Muhammad). In Saudi culture, the sharia is interpreted according to a strict Sunni form known as Salafi (or Wahhabi). The law is mostly unwritten, leaving judges with significant discretionary power which they usually exercise in favor of tribal customs.[8] The variation of interpretation often leads to controversy. For example, Sheikh Ahmad Qassim Al-Ghamdi, chief of the Makkah region’s mutaween (religious police), has said prohibiting ikhtilat (gender mixing) has no basis in Sharia.[9][10] Meanwhile, Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak, another prominent cleric, issued a fatwa (religious opinion) that proponents of ikhtilat should be killed.[3]

“It’s the culture, not the religion,” is a Saudi saying. Many Saudis do not see Islam as the main impediment to women’s rights. Said one female journalist, “If the Qur’an does not address the subject, then the clerics will err on the side of caution and make it haram (forbidden). The driving ban for women is the best example.”[9] Journalist Sabria Jawhar dismisses perceptions of Islam as patriarchal as a Western stereotype. “If all women were given the rights the Qur’an guarantees us, and not be supplanted by tribal customs, then the issue of whether Saudi women have equal rights would be reduced.”[11][12] Asmaa Al-Muhhamad, editor for Al Arabiya, points out that women in many other Islamic nations, including those in the Gulf area, have more political power than Saudi women. The 2009 Global Gender Gap Report ranked several Muslim nations, such as Kyrgyzstan, Gambia, and Indonesia significantly higher than Saudi Arabia for women's equality.[1]

Saudis often invoke the life of Muhammad, to prove that Islam allows strong women. His first wife, Khadijah, was a powerful businesswoman who employed him and then initiated the marriage proposal on her own.[13] Another wife, Aisha commanded an army at the Battle of Bassorah and is the source of many hadiths.[6][14] Muhammad ended female infanticide and established rights for women.[15]

Enforcement and custom vary by region. Jeddah is relatively permissive. Riyadh and the surrounding Najd region, origin of the House of Saud, have stricter traditions.[16] Prohibitions against women driving are typically unenforced in rural areas.[17]

The 1979 Iranian Revolution and subsequent Grand Mosque Seizure in Saudi Arabia caused the government to implement stricter enforcement of sharia. Saudi women who were adults before 1979 recall driving, inviting non-mahram (unrelated) men into their homes (with the door open), and being in public without an abaya (full-body covering) or niqab (veil).[9][18] The subsequent September 11 attacks against the World Trade Center in 2001, on the other hand, are often viewed as precipitating cultural change away from strict fundamentalism.[4][6][11]

The government under King Abdullah is considered reformist. It has opened the country's first co-educational university, appointed the first female cabinet member, and passed laws against domestic violence. Women did not gain the right to vote in 2005, but the king supports a woman's right to drive and vote. Critics say the reform is far too slow, and often more symbolic than substantive.[4][19][20]

Conservatives seek to preserve the culture's traditional gender roles. They see Saudi Arabia as uniquely in need of conservative values because it is the center of Islam.[5] Radical activists, such as Wajeha Al-Huwaider, compare the condition of Saudi women to slavery[21]

In 2006, a government poll found that over 80 percent of Saudi women do not think women should drive or work with men.[4] A Gallup poll found that most Saudi women do not think women should be allowed to hold political office; no other Muslim country in the poll had a similar response. Saudi women supportive of traditional gender roles argue that these changes would be opposed to Muslim values and an unwanted Western cultural influence, and that they already have a high degree of independence.[5]

Male guardian

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband's) absence what Allah would have them guard.
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All females must have a male guardian, typically a father or husband. The guardian has duties to, and rights over, his woman in many aspects of civic life. Women need their guardian's permission for: marriage and divorce; travel, if under 45; education; employment; opening a bank account; elective surgery, particularly when sexual in nature.[1][3][8][22][23][24]

Guardianship requirements are not written law. They are applied according to the customs and understanding of particular officials and institutions (hospitals, police stations, banks, etc.). Official transactions and grievances initiated by women are often abandoned because officers, or the women themselves, believe they need authorization from the woman's guardian. Officials may demand the presence of a guardian if a woman cannot not show an ID card or is fully covered. These conditions make complaints against the guardians themselves extremely difficult.[8]

Saudis consider male guardianship a right of women. In a 2010 interview with the New York Times, Saudi women defended male guardianship as providing protection and love.[3]

In Saudi culture, women have their integrity and a special life that is separate from men. As a Saudi woman, I demand to have a guardian. My work requires me to go to different regions of Saudi Arabia, and during my business trips I always bring my husband or my brother. They ask nothing in return—they only want to be with me.

The image in the West is that we are dominated by men, but they always forget the aspect of love. People who aren’t familiar with Shariah often have the wrong idea. If you want stability and safety in your life, if you want a husband who takes care of you, you won’t find it except in Islam.

In 2008, some Saudi women launched a petition “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me," which gathered over 5,000 signatures. The petition defended the status quo and requested punishment for activists demanding "equality between men and women, [and] mingling between men and women in mixed environments".[3]

Liberal activists reject guardianship, loving or not, as demeaning to women. They object to being treated like "subordinates" and "children."[6][11] They point to women whose careers were ended by the guardians, or who lost their children because of a lack of custody rights. In a 2009 case, a father vetoed several of his daughter's attempts to marry outside their tribe, and sent her to a mental institution as punishment.[25] The courts recognize obedience to the father as law, even in cases involving adult daughters.[26] Saudi activist Wajeha Al-Huwaider agrees that most Saudi men are caring, but "it’s the same kind of feeling they have for handicapped people or for animals. The kindness comes from pity, from lack of respect.”[3] She compares male guardianship to slavery:[21]

The ownership of a woman is passed from one man to another. Ownership of the woman is passed from the father or the brother to another man, the husband. The woman is merely a piece of merchandise, which is passed over to someone else—her guardian ... Ultimately, I think women are greatly feared. When I compare the Saudi man with other Arab men, I can say that the Saudi is the only man who could not compete with the woman. He could not compete, so what did he do with her? ... The woman has capabilities. When women study, they compete with the men for jobs. All jobs are open to men. 90% of them are open to men. You do not feel any competition ... If you do not face competition from the Saudi woman ... you have the entire scene for yourself. All positions and jobs are reserved for you. Therefore, you are a spoiled and self-indulged man.

The absurdity of the guardianship system, according to Huwaider, is shown by what would happen if she tried to remarry: "I would have to get the permission of my son."[6]

The Saudi government has approved international and domestic declarations regarding women's rights, and insists that there is no law of male guardianship. Officially, it maintains that international agreements are applied in the courts. International organizations and NGOs are skeptical. "The Saudi government is saying one thing to the Human Rights Council in Geneva but doing another thing inside the kingdom," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.[27] Saudi interlocutors told a UN investigator that international agreements carry little to no weight in Saudi courts.[8] According to Riyadh businesswoman Hoda al-Geresi, the government has been slow to implement a 2004 resolution to increase employment and protect against abusive guardians.[1]


Male guardianship is closely related to namus (or "sharaf" in a Bedouin context), roughly translated as "honor". It also carries connotations of modesty and respectability. The namus of a male includes the protection of the females in his family. He provides for them, and in turn the women's honor (sometimes called "ird") reflects on him. Namus is a common feature of many different patriarchal societies.

Since the namus of a male guardian is affected by that of the women under his care, he is expected to control their behavior. If their honor is lost, in the eyes of the community he has lost control of them. Threats to chastity, in particular, are threats to the namus of the male guardian.[28]

"If a [pregnant] woman comes in to the hospital with a guardian, then she can leave with anyone, even the driver. If she comes in without a guardian, it becomes a "police case," and she'll need a guardian to come to the hospital in order for her to get discharged."
Clinical psychologist[27]

Namus is associated with honor killing. If a man loses namus because of a woman in his family, he may attempt to cleanse his honor by punishing her. In extreme cases, the punishment can be death. The suspicion alone of a woman’s wrong-doing can be enough for her to be subject to violence in the name of honor.[29]

In 2007, a young woman was murdered by her father for chatting with a man on Facebook. The case attracted a lot of media attention. Conservatives called for the government to ban Facebook, because it incites lust and causes social strife by encouraging gender mingling.[30][31]


Purdah is a curtain which makes sharp separation between the world of man and that of a woman, between the community as a whole and the family which is its heart, between the street and the home, the public and the private, just as it sharply separates society and the individual.[32]

Purdah requires women to avoid men and to cover most of their bodies. Purdah applies between members of the opposite sex who are not mahram (or married). Mahram is defined as the kind of kinship which makes sexual relations incestuous. By blood, parents, grandparents, siblings, and uncles and aunts are mahram. Parents in-law and step-parents are also mahram. In addition, rada (fiqh), or breastfeeding, causes someone to be mahram. The woman must provide five full meals of breastmilk in order to cause "milk kinship". Aunts sometimes breast-feed nephews by marriage, so that the families can mingle when they become adults.

The mutaween, particularly active in Riyadh, Buraydah and Tabuk, can detain Saudis who violate religious law. Women can be charged with prostitution for socializing with a man who is not a relative or husband.[33] However, enforcement of purdah has relaxed in the wake of the September 11 attacks against the World Trade Center in 2001.[6][11]

Dress code


And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their khimar over their bosoms and not display their beauty
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Among non-mahram men, women must cover the parts of the body that are awrah (not meant to be exposed). In much of Islam, a women's face is not considered awrah. In Saudi Arabia and some other Arab states, all of the body is considered awrah except the hands and eyes. Accordingly, women in most of the country must wear the niqab (veil), as well as a hijab (head covering), and full black cloak called an abaya. Many historians and Islamic scholars hold that the custom, if not requirement, of the veil predates Islam in parts of the Gulf region. They argue that the Qur'an was interpreted to require the veil as part of adapting it to tribal traditions.[34] [35][36][37]

File:Young Saudi Arabian woman in Abha.jpg

A Saudi woman wearing a traditional niqab

Traditionally, women's clothing must not reveal anything about her body. So, it is supposed to be thick, opaque, and loose. It is also required to be a dull color, unadorned, and generally not of interest to the male. However, it should not resemble the clothing of men (or non-Muslims).[38]

The strictness of the dress code varies by region. In Jeddah, women have more freedom regarding veils and covering their clothes with an abaya. Riyadh is more conservative. Some shops sell designer abayas that have elements such as flared sleeves or a tighter form. Fashionable abayas come in colors other than black, and may be decorated with patterns and glitter. According to one designer, abayas are "no longer just abayas. Today, they reflect a woman's taste and personality."[6][39][40]

In the West, the dress code is often regarded as a highly visible symbol of oppression. Some places, such as France and Quebec (part of Canada), are considering passing legislation that would ban the veil.[41][42] Saudi women, however, place the dress code low on the list priorities for reform or leave it off entirely.[43] Journalist Sabria Jawhar complains that Western readers of her Huffington Post blog are obsessed with her veil. She calls the niqab "trivial":[11][12]

(People) lose sight of the bigger issues like jobs and education. That’s the issue of women’s rights, not the meaningless things like passing legislation in France or Quebec to ban the burqa ... Non-Saudis presume to know what’s best for Saudis, like Saudis should modernize and join the 21th century or that Saudi women need to be free of the veil and abaya ... And by freeing Saudi women, the West really means they want us to be just like them, running around in short skirts, nightclubbing and abandoning our religion and culture.

A majority of women say they want to wear the veil.[44] They cite Islamic piety, pride in family traditions, and fewer distractions from male colleagues. For many women, the dress code is a part of the right to modesty that Islam guarantees women. Some also perceive attempts at reform as anti-Islamic intrusion by Westerners:"They fear Islam, and we are the world's foremost Islamic nation."[5]

Sex segregation

File:Jeddah Marriott no women sign.jpg

Sign at the gym at the Marriot hotel in Jeddah

Sex segregation is expected in public. Non-mahram women and men must minimize social interaction. Most offices, banks, and universities have separate entrances for men and women. According to law, there should be physically and visually separate sections for the sexes at all meetings including weddings and funerals. Companies traditionally have been expected to create all-female areas if they hire women. Public transportation is segregated. Public places such as beaches, amusement parks, and ice-skating rinks are also segregated, sometimes by time, so that men and women attend at different hours.[45] Violation of the principles of sex segregation is known as khalwa.

Many Saudi homes have one entrance for men and another for women. Private space is associated with women while the public space, such as the living room, is reserved for men. Traditional house designs use high walls, compartmentalized inner rooms, and curtains to protect the family and particularly women from the public.[46]

Segregation is particularly strict in restaurants, since eating requires removal of the veil. Most restaurants in Saudi Arabia have "family" and "male-only" (or "singles-only") sections. Women have to sit in the family section. Restaurants typically bar entrance to women who come without their husbands or mahram. Women are barred from waitressing, except at a few women-only restaurants.[47][48]

Western companies often enforce Saudi religious regulations in restaurants, which has prompted some Western activists to criticise those companies. McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and other US firms, for instance, maintain sex-segregated eating zones in their restaurants. The facilities in the women's section are usually lower in quality.[49] Men and women may, sometimes, mix in restaurants of Western luxury hotels that cater primarily to noncitizens.[16]

Exceptions to segregation rules sometimes include hospitals, medical colleges, and banks. The number of mixed-gender workplaces has increased since King Abdullah was crowned, although they are still unusual.[3][4] Several newspaper publishers have desegregated their offices.[9]

As a practical matter, gender mixing is fairly common in parts of daily life. Women customarily take taxis driven by men. Many households have maids, who mix with the non-mahram men of the households.[50] Maids, taxi drivers, and waiters tend to be foreigners, which is sometimes used as a reason to be less strict about segregation.[48]

File:McDonald's branch, Takkassusi street, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.jpg

McDonald's in Riyadh. Western restaurants comply with Saudi requirements of sex segregation, provoking comparisons to apartheid among Western activists.

The opening of the first co-educational university in 2009 caused an eruption of debate over segregation. A prominent cleric argued that segregation cannot be grounded in Sharia. He suggested those who advocate it are hypocrites:[10]

Mixing was part of normal life for the Ummah (Muslim world) and its societies ... Those who prohibit the mixing of the genders actually live it in their real lives, which is an objectionable contradiction as every fair-minded Muslim should follow Shariah judgments without excess or negligence. In many Muslim houses—even those of Muslims who say mixing is haram (forbidden)—you can find female servants working around unrelated males.

In 2008 Khamisa Mohammad Sawadi, a 75-year-old woman, was sentenced to 40 lashes and imprisonment for allowing a man to deliver bread to her directly in her home. Sawadi, a non-citizen, was deported.[16][51]

Breast milk sons

In order to reduce the difficulties of strict sex segregation in modern life, some clerics issued a fatwa encouraging women to provide breast milk to any man with whom she comes into regular contact. Abdel Mohsen Obeikan, a renowned Islamic scholar, an adviser to the royal court and consultant to the Ministry of Justice, said in 2010: "The man should take the milk, but not directly from the breast of the woman. He should drink it and then becomes a relative of the family, a fact that allows him to come in contact with the women without breaking Islam's rules about mixing."[52] Breast milk kinship is indeed considered to be as good as a blood relationship in Islam and this way, for example foreign drivers can mix freely with all members of the family without breaking the Islamic rule which does not allow mixing of genders.[52] Another cleric disagreed, saying the man should take the milk straight from her breast. The issue moved one female Saudi blogger to ridicule: "The whole issue just shows how clueless men are. All this back and forth between sheiks and not one bothers to ask a woman if it's logical, let alone possible to breastfeed a grown man five fulfilling breast milk meals. Moreover, the thought of a huge hairy face at a woman's breast does not evoke motherly or even brotherly feelings. It could go from the grotesque to the erotic but definitely not maternal."[53]

The "breast milk" fatwa became a rallying point for right-to-drive activists. They have threatened to start breastfeeding professional drivers, so that they can travel without violating segregation laws: "We either be allowed to drive or breastfeed foreigners."[52]

Economic rights

For me to go to any government

agency or to the court to buy or sell property, as a woman I am obligated to bring two men as witnesses to testify to my identity, and four male witnesses to testify that the first two are credible witnesses, and actually know me. Where is any woman going to find six men to go with her to the court?! It’s hard for me to get my legal rights...the solution is to use one’s connections, pay a bribe or be sharp-tongued. --Loulwa al-Saidan, real estate investor[1]


Girls are taught that their primary role is to raise children and take care of the household. According to Saudi culture, a woman's place is at home and a man's place is at the workplace.[54] Saudi sharia (Islamic law) allows women to work, provided it does not lead to her neglecting her essential duties of homemaking. Women may also work if it is necessary for their support, such as a widow with children.[22][23][24]

The employment of women should minimize mixing with non-mahram men.[55] The private sector is not banned from allowing women to work with men, although private business is encouraged to follow the example of government offices. Officially, a woman's work should not lead to her traveling without a close male relative. Most working women, however, out of necessity and practicality travel to work without a male relative and are alone with a driver.[22][23][24]

Women are allowed to work as long as their husbands or their male guardians approve of the work. Her work must also be deemed suitable for the female physique and mentality. It is forbidden for women to be appointed as judges, and positions of high public office are also reserved for men.[22][23][24] Teaching and nursing are common professions for women. The number of women working in finance increased 280% between 2000 and 2008.[56]

Implementation of a resolution supporting expanded employment opportunities for women met resistance from within the labor ministry, and from the conservative Saudi citizenry.[57] These institutions and individuals generally claim that according to Sharia, a woman's work outside the house is against her fitrah (natural state).

The Saudi Labor Ministry has also been inconsistent in its support for resolutions promoting women's right to work. In 2006, Minister Dr. Ghazi Al-Qusaibi commented: "the [Labor] Ministry is not acting to [promote] women's employment since the best place for a woman to serve is in her own home" He went on to say:[57]

therefore no woman will be employed without the explicit consent of her guardian. We will also make sure that the [woman's] job will not interfere with her work at home with her family, or with her eternal duty of raising her children...

"We were given rights by Islam 1,400 years ago that women in the West only got at the beginning of the 20th century. Muslim women can work, inherit, and be financially independent."
Afrah al-Humaydi, college professor [5]

Mixed-gender workplaces have become more common in recent years, especially in industries that must serve women such as banking and medicine. When women do work jobs also held by men, the men earn more and receive better benefits. According to a report in the Saudi Gazette, an employer told a female reporter their health coverage doesn't cover her childbirth, but it does cover a "male employee's delivery."[58]

Women in Saudi Arabia make up between 5% and 15% of the workforce. In contrast, in Muslim nations such as United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Malaysia the rate is over 40%.[57][59][60]


Approximately 71% to 78% of females are literate, in comparison to 85% literacy rates in males.[61] More women receive secondary- and tertiary-education than men.[2] Fifty percent of working women have a college education, compared to 16 percent of working men.[1] In contrast, in 1970, only 2% of women were literate (compared to 15% of men).[62]

The quality of education is lower for females than males. Curricula and textbooks are updated less frequently, and teachers tend to be less qualified. At the higher levels, males have better research facilities.[63][64]

One of the official educational policies is to promote "belief in the One God, Islam as the way of life, and Muhammad as God's Messenger." Official policy particularly emphasizes religion in the education of girls: "The purpose of educating a girl is to bring her up in a proper Islamic way so as to perform her duty in life, be an ideal and successful housewife and a good mother, ready to do things which suit her nature such as teaching, nursing and medical treatment." Policy also specifies "women's right to obtain suitable education on equal footing with men in light of Islamic laws." [62]

Saudi women often specify education as the most important area for women's rights reform.[11][12][43]

Elementary education

Public education in Saudi Arabia is sex-segregated at all levels, and in general females and males do not attend the same school. Moreover, male teachers are not permitted to teach or work at girls' schools and women are not allowed to teach male children.[63] The education system treats the sexes differently due to their societal expectations. Boys' education emphasizes physical education and technical skills, whereas girl's education emphasizes the skills of housewives and mothers.[65] In some subjects, such as Arabic and mathematics, the annual examinations are the same for girls and boys.[66]

Higher education

Religious belief about gender roles and the perception that education is more relevant for men has resulted in fewer educational opportunities for women. The society's need for sex segregation in professional life is also used to justify restricting women's fields of study. Traditionally, women have been excluded from studying engineering, pharmacy, architecture, and law.[63][64] This has changed moderately in recent years as nearly 60% of all Saudi university students are female. Some fields, such as law and pharmacy, are beginning to open up for women. Saudi women can also study any subject they wish while abroad. However, customs of male guardianship and purdah curtail women's ability to study abroad. In 1992, three times as many men studied abroad on government scholarships, although the ratio had been near 50 percent in the early '80s.[62][67]

Women are primarily encouraged to study service industries or social sciences. Education, medicine, public administration, natural sciences, social sciences, and Islamic studies are deemed appropriate for women. Of all female university graduates in 2007, 93 percent had degrees in education or social sciences.[63][64]

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which opened in September 2009, is Saudi Arabia's first coeducational campus where men and women study alongside each other. Women are allowed to attend classes with men, may drive on campus, and are not required to veil themselves. In its inaugural year, 15% of the students were female, all of whom had studied at foreign universities. Classes are taught in English.[68] The opening of the university caused intense public debate. Addressing the issue, Sheikh Ahmad Qassim Al-Ghamdi, chief of the Makkah region’s mutaween, claimed that gender segregation has no basis in Shariah, or Islamic law, and has been incorrectly applied in the Saudi judicial system. Al-Ghamdi said that hadith, the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, makes no references to gender segregation, and mixing is therefore permitted under Shariah. There were many calls for (and rumors of) his dismissal.[9][10]

Technology is a central part of higher education for women. Many women's colleges use distance education (from home) to compensate for women's poor access to transportation.[28] Male lecturers are not allowed to lecture at women's classes. Since there are few female lecturers, some universities use videoconferencing to have male professors teach female students without face-to-face contact.[63]

Child marriage hinders the cause of women's education, because traditional responsibilities and child-bearing are too burdensome. The drop-out rate of girls increases around puberty, as they exchange education for marriage. Roughly 25% of college-aged young women do not attend college, and in 2005–2006, women had a 60% dropout rate.[64]

In 2009, the king appointed Norah al-Faiz a deputy minister for women's education, the first female cabinet-level official.[16]


Saudi Arabia was one of the few countries in the 2008 Olympics without a female delegation—women's sports are strongly discouraged in principle, although some teams do exist.[69]


O Prophet! Enjoin your wives, your daughters, and the wives of true believers that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad) That is most convenient, that they may be distinguished and not be harassed.
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Women’s freedom of movement is very limited in Saudi Arabia. They are not supposed to leave their houses or their local neighbourhood without the permission of their male guardian, and company of a mahram (close male relative). However, out of necessity most women leave the house alone and often have contact with unrelated men to shop or conduct business.[11][70]

In general, women are not allowed to drive, although it is often tolerated in rural areas. Most scholars and religious authorities have declared it haram (forbidden).[17][19] Commonly given reasons for the prohibition on women driving include:[71][72]

  1. Driving a car involves uncovering the face which is considered obligatory for women to cover in Saudi.
  2. Driving a car may lead women to go out of the house more often.
  3. Driving a car may lead women to have interaction with non-mahram males, for example at traffic accidents.
  4. Women driving cars may lead to overcrowding the streets and many young men may be deprived of the opportunity to drive.
  5. Driving would be the first step in an erosion of traditional values, such as gender segregation.

Women are generally discouraged from using public transport. It is technically forbidden, but unenforced, for women to take taxis or hire private drivers, as it results in khalwa (illegal mixing with a non-mahram man).[73] Women have limited access to bus and train services. Where it is allowed, they must use a separate entrance and sit in a back section reserved for women.[63] But the bus companies with the widest coverage in Riyadh and Jeddah do not allow women at all.[74]

Critics reject the ban on driving on the grounds that 1) it is not supported by the Qu'ran, 2) it causes violation of gender segregation customs, by needlessly forcing women to take taxis with male drivers, 3) it is an inordinate financial burden on families, causing the average woman to spend 30 percent of her income on taxis, 4) it impedes the education and employment of women, both of which tend to require commuting. In addition, male drivers are a frequent source of complaints of sexual harassment, and the public transport system is widely regarded as unreliable and dangerous.[46][74][75]

King Abdullah has said that he wants women to drive when the society is ready for it:[19]

I believe strongly in the rights of women. My mother is a woman. My sister is a woman. My daughter is a woman. My wife is a woman. I believe the day will come when women will drive. In fact if you look at the areas of Saudi Arabia, the desert, and in the rural areas, you will find that women do drive. The issue will require patience. In time I believe that it will be possible. I believe that patience is a virtue.

Advocates for the right of women to drive in Saudi Arabia collected about 1,000 signatures in 2008, hoping to persuade King Abdullah to lift the ban. But skepticism is common about Saudi Arabia's deeply religious and patriarchal society, where many believe that allowing women the right to drive could lead to Western-style openness and an erosion of traditional values.[76]

On International Women's Day 2008 Saudi feminist activist Wajeha al-Huwaider posted a youtube video of herself driving in a rural area (where it is allowed), and requesting a universal right for women to drive. She commented: "I would like to congratulate every group of women that has been successful in gaining rights. And I hope that every woman that remains fighting for her rights receives them soon."[17]

"Imagine a reporter who cannot drive. How will we beat the competition when we are always waiting to be picked up by someone?"
Reporter Ebtihal Mubarak[77]

In early 2010, the government began considering a proposal to create a nation-wide women-only bus system. Activists are divided on the proposal, some saying it will reduce sexual harassment and transportation expenses, while facilitating women entering the workforce. Others criticize it as an escape from the real issue of recognizing women's right to drive.[74][75]

Many of the laws controlling women apply to citizens of other countries who are relatives of Saudi men. For example, the following women require a male guardian's permission to leave the country: American-citizen women married to Saudi men, adult American-citizen women who are the unmarried daughters of Saudi fathers, and American-citizen boys under the age of 21 with a Saudi father.[33]

Legal issues

Political life

From what is left by parents and those nearest related there is a share for men and a share for women, whether the property be small or large, a determinate share.
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Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, with a Consultive Council (shura) of lawmakers appointed by the king. Only men 30 years of age and older may serve as lawmakers.

Women could not vote or run for office in the country's first municipal elections, in 2005. The government is considering giving women the right to vote.[8][78][79]

Women are allowed to hold position on boards of chambers of commerce. In 2008, two women were elected to the board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. There are no women on the High Court or the Supreme Judicial Council. There is one woman in a cabinet-level position, as deputy minister for women's education.[16] In 2010, the government announced female lawyers would be allowed to represent women in family cases.[80]

In court, the testimony of one man equals that of two women. Female parties to court proceedings generally must deputize male relatives to speak on their behalf.[81]

Identity cards

Prior to 2008, women were not allowed to enter hotels and furnished apartments when unaccompanied by a mahram. With a 2008 Royal Decree, however, the only requirement needed to allow women to enter hotels are their national identification cards, and the hotel must inform the nearest police station of their room reservation and length of stay, which is the law there for men too.[82]

In April, 2010, a new, optional ID card for women was issued which allows them to travel in countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The cards include GPS tracking, fingerprints and features that make them difficult to forge. Women do not need male permission to apply for the card, but do need it to travel abroad.[83] Proponents argue that new female identity cards enable a woman to carry out her activities with ease, and prevent forgeries committed in the name of women.

Traditionally, women in Saudi Arabia are registered on their father or husbands' identification card. The Ulema, Saudi's religious authorities, oppose the idea of issuing separate identity cards for women. Many other conservative Saudi citizens argue that cards, which show a woman's unveiled face, violate purdah and Saudi custom.[84]

Family code

And for those who launch a charge against their spouses, and have (in support) no evidence but their own,- their solitary evidence (can be received) if they bear witness four times (with an oath) by Allah that they are solemnly telling the truth;
But it would avert the punishment from the wife, if she bears witness four times (with an oath) By Allah, that (her husband) is telling a lie;
Template:Cite quran


In 2005, the country’s religious authority banned the practice of forced marriage. However, practically, females are not involved in making decisions surrounding their own marriages. The marriage contract is officially between the husband-to-be and the father of the bride.[85]

Polygamy is legal in Saudi Arabia. Saudi men may take as many as four wives, provided that they can support all wives equally. Polygamy has been reported to be widespread throughout the country.[85]

Women cannot marry non-Muslim men unless they obtain official permission.[16]


There are no laws defining the minimum age for marriage in Saudi Arabia. Most religious authorities have justified the marriage of girls as young as 9 and boys as young as 15.[86] However, they believe a father can marry off his daughter at any age as long as sexual intercourse is delayed until she reaches puberty.[87] A 2009 think-tank report on women's education concluded "Early marriage (before 16 years) ... negatively influences their chances of employment and the economic status of the family. It also negatively affects their health as they are at greater risk of dying from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth."[64] A 2004 United Nations report found that 16 percent of teenage Saudi women were or had been married.[85]

A 2010 news report documented the case of Shareefa, an abandoned child-bride. Shareefa was married to an 80-year-old man when she was 10. The deal was arranged by the girl's father in exchange for money, against the wishes of her mother. Her husband divorced her a few months after the marriage without her knowledge, and abandoned her at the age of 21. The mother is attempting legal action, arguing that "Shareefa is now 21, she has lost more than 10 years of her life, her chance for an education, a decent marriage and normal life. Who is going to take responsibility for what she has gone through?” [88]

The government's Saudi Human Rights Commission condemned child marriage in 2009, calling it "a clear violation against children and their psychological, moral and physical rights." It recommended that marriage officials adhere to a minimum age of 17 for females and 18 for males.[64][89]

Female genital cutting is reported as rare, possibly occurring among minorities such as African immigrants, Bedouin, or Shiites.[85][90][91][92] Some organizations are skeptical that official statistics can be trusted, because of the government's censorship of sensitive information and restrictions on independent aid organizations.[93][94]

Parental authority

In the area of parental authority, legally, children belong to their father who has sole guardianship. If a divorce takes place, women may be granted custody of their young children until they reach the age of seven. Older children are often awarded to the father or the paternal grandparents. Women cannot confer citizenship to children born to a non-Saudi Arabian father.[85]

Inheritance issues

The inheritance share of women in Saudi is generally smaller than that to which men are entitled. The Qu'ran states that daughters should inherit half as much as sons.Template:Cite quran[95] In rural areas, some women are also deprived of their entitled share as they are considered to be dependents of their fathers or husbands. Marrying outside the tribe is also grounds for limiting women's inheritance.[85][96]

Sexual violence and trafficking

"What kind of God would punish a woman for rape?"
Mona Eltahawy[97]

Traditionally, a rapist may be punished by anything from flogging to execution. Written law does not specifically criminalize rape or prescribe punishment. The rape victim is often punished as well, if she had first entered the rapist's company in violation of purdah. There is no law against spousal rape. Most rape cases are unreported, because victims fear namus, reduced marriage prospects, accusations of adultery, or imprisonment.[16]

Migrant women, often working as domestic helpers, represent a particularly vulnerable group and their living conditions are sometimes slave-like and include physical oppression and rape. In 2006, U.S. ambassador John Miller, Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said the forced labor of foreign women domestic workers was the most common kind of slavery in Saudi Arabia. Miller claimed human tracking is a problem everywhere, but Saudi Arabia's many foreign domestic workers and loopholes in the system cause many to fall victim to abuse and torture.[98]

Women, as well as men, may be subject to harassment by the country’s religious police, the mutaween, in some cases including arbitrary arrest and physical punishments.[99] A UN report cites a case in which two mutaween were charged with molesting a woman; the charges were dismissed on the grounds that mutaween are immune from prosecution.[8]

In some cases, victims of sexual assault are punished for khalwa, being alone with an unrelated male, prior to the assault. In the Qatif girl rape case, an 18-year old victim of kidnapping and gang rape was sentenced by a Saudi court to six months in prison and 200 lashes. The judge ruled she violated laws on segregation of the sexes, as she was in an unrelated man's car at the time of the attack. She was also punished for tryng to influence the court through the media.[100] The Ministry of Justice defended the sentence, saying she committed adultery and "provoked the attack" because she was "indecently dressed".[101] Her attackers were found guilty of kidnapping and were sentenced for prison terms ranging from two to ten years.[102] According to Human Rights Watch, one of the rapists filmed the assault with his mobile phone but the judges refused to allow it as evidence.[97] The victim told ABC News that her brother tried to kill her after the attack.[103] The case attracted international attention. The United Nations criticized social attitudes and the system of male guardianship, which deter women from reporting crimes. The UN report argued that women are prevented from escaping abusive environments because of their lack of legal and economic independence. They are further oppressed, according to the UN, by practices surrounding divorce and child custody, the absence of a law criminalizing violence against women, and inconsistencies in the application of laws and procedures.[104] The case prompted American Muslim journalist Mona Eltahawy to comment "What kind of God would punish a woman for rape? That is a question that Muslims must ask of Saudi Arabia because unless we challenge the determinedly anti-women teachings of Islam in Saudi Arabia, that kingdom will always get a free pass."[97] In December, 2007, King Abdullah pardoned the victim, but did not agree that the judge had erred.[8][101]

In 2009, the Saudi Gazette reported that a 23-year-old unmarried woman was sentenced to one year in prison and 100 lashes for adultery. She had been gang-raped, become pregnant, and tried unsuccessfully to abort the fetus. The flogging was postponed until after the delivery.[105]


There are five types of shackles, or jails, for the woman—if she manages to escape one, she might enter another. The first is the tribe, then comes the family, then the religious institutions, the political establishment, and finally, society. Wherever you go, you encounter a battle. What are you to do? Within every Saudi woman, there is a Scheherazade. Imagine Scheherazade trying every night to stay alive until the next night. That's how I see the Saudi woman.
Wajeha Al-Huwaider, Saudi activist[21]

Trends in the enforcement of Islamic code have influenced women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. The Iranian Revolution and September 11 attacks constitute recent inflection points in Saudi cultural history.

In 1979, the Iranian Revolution led to a resurgence of fundamentalism in many parts of the Islamic world. Fundamentalists sought to repel Westernization, and governments sought to defend themselves against revolution. In Saudi Arabia, fundamentalists occupied the Grand Mosque (Masjid al-Haram) and demanded a more conservative Islamic state, including "an end of education of women".[106] The government responded with stricter interpretations and enforcement of Islamic laws. Newspapers were discouraged from publishing images of women; the Interior Ministry discouraged women from employment, including expatriates. Scholarships for women to study abroad declined. Wearing the abaya in public became mandatory.[9][18][40][43]

In contrast, the September 11 attacks against the World Trade Center in 2001 precipitated a reaction against ultra-conservative Islamic sentiment; fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia. Since then, the mutaween have become less active, and reformists have been appointed to key government posts. The government says it has withdrawn support from schools deemed extremist, and moderated school textbooks.[4][11][19]

The government under King Abdullah is regarded as moderately progressive. It has opened the country's first co-educational university, appointed the first female cabinet member, and prohibited domestic violence. Gender segregation has relaxed, although it is still the norm. Critics say the reform is far too slow, and often more symbolic than substantive. Conservative clerics have successfully rebuffed attempts to outlaw child marriage. Women were not allowed to vote in the country's first municipal elections, although the King supports a woman's right to drive and vote. The few female government officials have minimal power. Norah Al-Faiz, the first female cabinet member, will not appear without her veil, appear on television without permission, or talk to male colleagues except by videoconferencing. She opposes girls' school sports as premature.[4][19][20][107][108]

The government has made international commitments to women's rights. It ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, with the proviso that the convention could not override Islamic law. However, government officials told the United Nations that there is no contradiction with Islam. The degree of compliance between government commitments and practice is disputed. A 2009 report by the UN questioned whether any international law ratified by the government has ever been applied inside Saudi Arabia.[8]

Some of the recently appointed female advisors to parliament (shurah) believe slow reform is effective. According to Dr. Nora Alyousif, "The Saudi leadership is working hard on reform and supporting women … Seventy years ago we were completely isolated from the world. The changes which are taking place are unmistakable, and we have finally started opening up."[1] Dr. Maha Almuneef says, “There are small steps now. There are giant steps coming. But most Saudis have been taught the traditional ways. You can't just change the social order all at once."[4]

Local and international women's groups are pushing governments for reform, taking advantage of the fact that some rulers are eager to project a more progressive image to the West. The presence of powerful businesswomen—still a rare breed—in some of these groups helps get them heard.[4][100]

Lubna Olayan, the CEO of Olayan Financing Company, is a well-known advocate for women's rights. She was the first woman to address a mixed-gender business audience in Saudi Arabia, speaking at the Jeddah Economic Forum in 2004. She used the occasion to advocate for economic equality:[109]

My vision is of a country with a prosperous and diversified economy in which any Saudi citizen, irrespective of gender who is serious about finding employment, can find a job in the field for which he or she is best qualified, leading to a thriving middle class and in which all Saudi citizens, residents or visitors to the country feel safe and can live in an atmosphere where mutual respect and tolerance exist among all, regardless of their social class, religion or gender.

Forbes and Time magazines have named Lubna Olayan one of the world's most influential women.[110] The Grand Mufti, Abdul-Azeez ibn Abdullaah Aal ash-Shaikh condemned the event, saying "Allowing women to mix with men is the root of every evil and catastrophe ... It is highly punishable. Mixing of men and women is a reason for greater decadence and adultery."[111]

Wajeha al-Huwaider is often described as the most radical and prominent feminist activist in Saudi Arabia. In a 2008 interview, she described plans for an NGO called The Association for the Protection and Defense of Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia. She described the goals of the organization:[112]

Among the issues that have been raised, and that are of the utmost importance, are: representation for women in shari'a courts; setting a [minimum] age for girls' marriages; allowing women to take care of their own affairs in government agencies and allowing them to enter government buildings; protecting women from domestic violence, such as physical or verbal violence, or keeping her from studies, work, or marriage, or forcing her to divorce ... We need laws to protect women from these aggressions and violations of their rights as human beings. And there is also [the need to] prevent girls' circumcision ... We truly have a great need for a Ministry of Women's Affairs to deal with women's rights, issues of motherhood and infancy, and women's health in rural areas… This is our ultimate goal ...

In 2008, the government warned The Association for the Protection and Defense of Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia not to hold any protests.[16]

"I feel the lady is like a diamond. She is expensive, and she should cover herself."
Saudi housewife[6]

Saudis frequently debate the right way to bring about change. Those who oppose radical activists like Wajeha al-Huwaider fear that an all or nothing approach to women's rights will spur a backlash against any change.[43] Journalist Sabria Jawhar dismisses Huwaider as a show-off: "The problem with some Saudi activists is that they want to make wholesale changes that are contrary to Islam, which requires a mahram for traveling women. If one wonders why great numbers of Saudi women don't join Al-Huwaider it's because they are asked to defy Islam. Al-Huwaider's all or nothing position undercuts her credibility."[25]

Retaliation against women's rights activism has some precedent. Immediately following Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Saudi women launched a campaign for more rights. Forty-seven women drove illegally through Riyadh, in protest against the ban on driving. Activists presented a petition to King Fahd requesting "basic legal and social rights." Subsequently, a feminist leader was arrested and tortured. Fundamentalists demanded strict punishment of the women who had driven in protest, and denounced activists as "whores." The mutaween enforced the dress code more aggressively.[113]

As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).
Template:Cite quran

Many believe slow change is the only kind possible. History professor Hatoon al-Fassi says recent campaigns for women’s rights have opened up public discourse on topics such as child marriage and rape. "It's an exaggeration to call it a women's movement. But we are proud to say that something is going on in Saudi Arabia. We are not really free, but it is possible for women to express themselves as never before." [4] Nonetheless, she says Westerners do not understand Saudi culture and how potentially traumatic change can be: “People had lived their whole lives doing one thing and believing one thing, and suddenly the king and the major clerics were saying that mixing was O.K. You can’t begin to imagine the impact that the ban on mixing has on our lives and what lifting this ban would mean.”[3]

Others regard the current pace of change as much too slow, and activism as too limited. Sumayya Jabarti, editor of the Arab News, says there are too many women with decision-making power who are like "queen bees," doing nothing to question the status quo. "People say things are changing for women because they are comparing it to before, when things were below zero. People say 'change,' but it is all relative and it is very, very limited ... Change is not coming, we are taking it ... I don't think the way is paved. I think we are building it through the route taken ... Most of the time, we are walking in place."[6]

"Heaven lies at the feet of mothers."

Most Saudis oppose mixed workplaces and women driving in cities. Most women want to wear the veil and don’t think women should hold political office. Many Saudis view their country as “the closest thing to an ideal and pure Islamic nation”, and therefore most in need of resistance to Western values. Conservative cleric Mohsen al-Awajy says the country must resist secularization: "Saudi society is a special, tribal society, and neither King Abdullah or anyone else can impose his own interpretation of Islam. They can do nothing without Islam. There is no Saudi Arabia without Islam."[3][4][5]

Princess Loulwa Al-Faisal describes herself as a conservative, advocating change that is gradual and consistent with Islam. A member of the royal family, she argues that Islam sees women's rights as equal but different, which "Together, add up to a secure society that works". Princess Al-Faisal argues "The ultra-conservatives and the ultra-liberals both want the same thing, the destruction of the Islamic way. We are preserving it ... There are problems mostly with the way the law is interpreted, mostly in the courts, but those are changing." According to Princess Al-Faisal, Saudi women are better off than Western women in some ways: "their property is inviolable and that men have a duty to look after them". The lack of modesty in the West is "bad for the children". Nonetheless, she supports the women's suffrage in municipal elections.[114] When Thomas Friedman asked her what she would do if she were "queen for a day", she replied "First thing, I'd let women drive".[115]

Prince Nayef, a possible heir to the throne, is considered more conservative than King Abdullah. He has said there is no need for women to serve as members of parliament or elected officials.[4][108]

New technology

Gender segregation has produced great enthusiasm for innovative communications technology, especially when it is anonymous. Saudis were early adopters of Bluetooth technology, as men and women use it to communicate secretly.[116]

Saudi women use online social networking as a way to share ideas they cannot share publicly. As one woman put it:

In Saudi Arabia, we live more of a virtual life than a real life. I know people who are involved in on-line romances with people they have never met in real life ... And many of us use Facebook for other things, like talking about human rights and women's rights. We can protest on Facebook about the jailing of a blogger which is something we couldn't do on the streets.

Some conservative clerics have called for Facebook to be banned because it causes gender mingling. One cleric called it a "door to lust" and cause of "social strife".[30]

Foreign views

File:B) Vicinity of Damascus, Moslem Woman - Vicinity of Mecca, Fellah Woman - Vicinity of Damascus.jpg

Three Muslim women in 19th-century dress. The middle woman is from Mecca (the other two are Syrian).

“Saudi women are denied many of the same rights that ‘Blacks’ and ‘Coloreds’ were denied in apartheid South Africa and yet the kingdom still belongs to the very same international community that kicked Pretoria out of its club.”[97] Western critics often compare the situation of Saudi women to a system of apartheid, analogous to South Africa's treatment of non-whites during South Africa's apartheid era. As evidence, they cite restrictions on travel, fields of study, choice of profession, access to the courts, and political speech.[117][118][119]

Some commentators have argued that Saudi gender policies constitute a crime against humanity, and warrant intervention from the international community. They criticize the U.S. government for publicizing oppression by enemies such as the Taliban, even though its allies, like Saudi Arabia, have similar policies. Mary Kaldor views gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia as similar to that enforced by the Taliban in Afghanistan.[120] In contrast, political commentator Daniel Pipes, sees Saudi gender apartheid as tempered by other practices, such as allowing women to attend school and work.[121][122][123][124]

Critics also blame Western corporations that cooperate in enforcing segregation. American chains such as Starbucks and Pizza Hut maintain separate eating areas; the men’s areas are typically high-quality, whereas the women’s are rundown or lack seats. In a 2001 column, Washington Post editor Colbert I. King commented:

As with Saudi Arabia, white-ruled South Africa viewed external criticism as a violation of its sovereignty and interference with its internal affairs. And U.S. corporations in South Africa, as with their Saudi Arabian counterparts, pleaded that they had no choice but to defer to the local "culture."

King wonders why there is nothing like the Sullivan Principles for gender-based discrimination.[125] Journalist Anne Applebaum argues that gender apartheid in South Africa even gets a free pass from American feminists. She questions why American civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson were active in protesting South Africa’s racial apartheid, but American feminists rarely venture beyond reproductive rights when discussing international politics: “Until this changes, it will be hard to mount a campaign, in the manner of the anti-apartheid movement, to enforce sanctions or codes of conduct for people doing business there.”[119]

Cultural relativism is the root of activist inaction, according to feminists such as Azar Majedi, Pamela Bone, and Maryam Namazie. They argue that political Islam is misogynist, and the desire of Western liberals to tolerate Islam blinds them to women’s rights violations. Majedi and Namazie, both born in Iran, consider cultural relativism racist: “To put it bluntly, according to this concept, because of my birthplace, I should enjoy fewer rights relative to a woman born in Sweden, England, or France.” Pamela Bone argues feminist apathy is supported by “the dreary cultural relativism that pervades the thinking of so many of those once described as on the Left. We are no better than they are. We should not impose our values on them. We can criticise only our own. The problem with this mindset is that, with all its faults, Western culture is clearly, objectively, better.” Bone argues that cultural relativism comes from a fear that criticizing Islam will be considered racist.[117][126][127]

Ann Elizabeth Mayer, an American specialist in Islamic law, sees gender apartheid as enshrined in the Saudi Basic Law:

Article 9. The family is the kernel of Saudi society, and its members shall be brought up on the basis of the Islamic faith, and loyalty and obedience to Allah, His Messenger, and to guardians; respect for and implementation of the law, and love of and pride in the homeland and its glorious history as the Islamic faith stipulates.
Article 10. The state will aspire to strengthen family ties, maintain its Arab and Islamic values and care for all its members, and to provide the right conditions for the growth of their resources and capabilities.

Mayer argues that Articles 9 and 10 deny women "any opportunity to participate in public law or government".[128]

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