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The troubling world of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia

Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are marginal at best. The Arab sovereign state in Western Asia is notorious for treating women like second class citizens, but even with this in mind, it's difficult for westerners to imagine the real array of laws and acknowledged rules that restrict female citizens from leading full and happy lives. That being said, every Saudi’s situation differs and one rule is certainly not the norm for all; not everything on this list will stand for every woman in the country. It is important to keep in mind that rights are heavily based upon an individual's position in society, which part of the country they live in, as well the social situation they find themselves in.

Yet overall, despite the growing campaign in Saudi Arabia to stop women from living within the boxes their husbands, fathers, brothers or sons may set, it seems the gross majority of women are bound to live under men’s reign for a long time coming. With this in mind, we take you through the things that a lot of women in Saudi Arabian women cannot do.

Try clothes on when they are shopping

Saudi Arabia is said to be one of the best places in the world to go shopping, but in certain areas of the country there is one problem for women who look to buy new attire: There are hardly any fitting rooms. According to reports, in some places the idea of a woman disrobing in a public building is considered improper. "The mere thought of a disrobed woman behind a dressing-room door is apparently too much for men to handle," wrote Vanity Fair journalist Maureen Dowd in ‘A Girl's Guide to Saudi Arabia’. However, in spite of this account, one must remember that some Saudi women have become accustomed to the situation and would themselves be uneasy with change. This idea was highlighted in an Arab News column written by Sabria S. Jawhar, which stated that some women themselves feel uncomfortable disrobing in a department store.

Saudi Arabian women line up Credit: Getty Images

In the regions where there are no changing rooms, the situation can lead to an array of irritating problems for those who wish to shop; for instance some women are forced to buy the item and then return it if they find it is the wrong size or colour. Arab News have claimed that certain shopping centres have attempted to fix the problem by installing changing rooms near to the women’s bathrooms, but these can be dirty, smelly rooms located in the basement that women don’t particularly want to visit. In turn, these fitting rooms have created even more issues for women who have to leave a deposit at the store while they go to try on the item.

Receive their rightful inheritance

Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia relating to inheritance are incredibly controversial and often see women often taking half of what their male counterparts have. According to reports, society dictates that men look after their female families, meaning that they deserve twice the amount that is given to females. This rule is also in the Qur’an which states: “Allah commands you regarding your children. For the male a share equivalent to that of two females.”

Buy a Barbie

In 2003, it was reported that Saudi Arabia’s religious police had declared Barbie dolls a threat to morality, stating that the "revealing" clothes of the children’s toy were offensive to Islam. "Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories, and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West. Let us beware of her dangers and be careful," read a message posted on the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice site. However, again, it is crucial to remember that one rule does not go for all areas of society; certain areas like the city of Jeddah are known to be more liberal and there have been multiple reports suggesting that Barbie dolls are sold in certain shops across the country.

Woman is watched by man after voting in the municipal elections, a big move for women's rights in Saudi Arabia Credit: Getty Images

Run for office or vote without difficulty

2015 was the first time Saudi Arabian women were able to run for office, marking a significant step forward. However, the Guardian reported that women who put themselves forward were banned from putting their pictures on campaign posters and were unable to talk to male voters. The same year marked the moment women were able to vote in municipal elections, but Al Jazeera reported that the process to do so was loaded with roadblocks that severely limited their participation. For example, women were asked for their ID cards, yet many only have family cards as means of identification. Proof of residence also marred the procedure as women were required to obtain a validation of residence from an authorised district clerk, asking for a copy of a family card and residence documents.

Compete in international sports without being called "prostitutes"

Saudi Arabia banned female athletes from competing at the Olympics but, amid calls for the country to be banned from the event until they allowed women to take part, they relented in July 2012 and agreed to send two female athletes to compete in London on a number of conditions including that they would not compete in mixed games and that they would dress up conservatively at all times. The number of female athletes increased in 2016 when the country sent four women to Rio.

However, their presence on the world stage caused uproar, meaning a hashtag which described them as “the prostitutes of the Olympics” began to trend. In addition, many argued that their presence was designed to draw attention away from what was happening at home, with news outlets claiming that a lot of women were rarely able to compete in organised sports.

Drive a car

Women can legally drive in Saudi Arabia - but not in reality. There is no law banning them from doing so, but - in most areas - it is impossible to get a licence. Protests have taken place in the past which have seen dozens of suppressed women flouting the rules and driving cars. Differing reports detail how exactly this behaviour was received in the country, with journalist Sabria Jawhar claiming that most women found “public displays of disobedience undignified and counterproductive”. 

This idea is strongly opposed by the western media; Sahar Nassif, a prominent women’s rights activist from Jeddah told the Metro that, although she was forced by police to sign an official document saying she’d never drive again, people who witnessed her driving were clapping, honking and giving her the thumbs up. When assessing driving, one must consider a woman's position; some wealthy women may have no qualms with not being able to drive as they have a private chauffeur to help them get around. In contrast, a woman without this privilege or a woman who sees driving as important to gaining equality is likely to feel differently.

Limited women's rights in Saudi Arabia mean they are unable to drive Credit: Getty Images

Wear what they want

The country has a strict conservative dress code which sees them wearing an abaya - a long cloak - and a headscarf. However the dress code is governed by different interpretations of Islamic law and is enforced to varying degrees across the country; for example in Riyadhthe capital of Saudi Arabia - as well as a lot of rural towns - this is law is uncompromising, whereas, in more liberal communities, one may be able to leave the house without a headscarf. According to western media, police are known to regularly harass women in certain areas for showing too much flesh or wearing too much makeup. In fact, in July 2017 a Saudi Arabian woman was arrested for wearing an “indecent” skirt and crop top in a SnapChat video.

Do everyday things without a man’s permission

Women are bound by oppressive guardianship laws that require a husband, father, brother or even young son, to give them permission to file a legal claim, go to the doctor or rent an apartment. They also can’t make important decisions for themselves like get a job, go to university or get married. Many western media outlets claim that women cannot go outside without a male companion present, which is true for many areas but, again, is based upon region, class and social situation.

In the past, Saudi women were not issued ID cards or passports so were not able to travel to other countries. Nowadays, they can - but most of the time only with a man’s permission. ”We all have to live in the borders of the boxes our dads or husbands draw for us," Zahra, 25, told Human Rights Watch. In addition, Maureen Dowd claimed that women were not able to visit cemeteries to mourn the dead, but this was disputed by several Saudi women in the press.

The idea that a lot of women in Saudi Arabia are denied these simple rights is truly horrifying. However, although women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are a million miles from perfect, neither are women’s rights in western society. To find out more, check out the uncomfortable truth about women's equality in 2017.

  • Aug
  • 39 shares
  • Emma Brazell