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International Alliance for Advanced Judicial Studies (IAAJS)

Women's rights in Saudi Arabia

 

During the late 20th and early 21st centuries, women's rights in Saudi Arabia have been limited in comparison to the rights of women in many of its neighboring countries due to the strict application of sharia law in place in Saudi Arabia. The World Economic Forum's 2016 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 141 out of 144 countries for gender parity, down from 134 out of 145 in 2015. The United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) elected Saudi Arabia to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women for 20182022, in a move that was widely criticised by the international community. Women in Saudi Arabia constituted 13% of the country's native workforce as of 2015.

The variation of interpretation often leads to controversy. For example, Sheikh Ahmad Qassim Al-Ghamdi, chief of the Mecca region's Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice or the mutaween (religious police), has said prohibiting ikhtilat (gender mixing) has no basis in Sharia. Meanwhile, Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak, another prominent cleric, issued a fatwa (religious opinion) that proponents of ikhtilat should be killed.

Asmaa Al-Muhammad, the editor for Al Arabiya, points out that women in all other Muslim nations, including those in the Gulf area, have far more political power than Saudi women. The 2013 Global Gender Gap Report ranked several Muslim nations, such as Kyrgyzstan, The Gambia, and Indonesia significantly higher than Saudi Arabia for women's equality. However it moved up four places from the last report due to an increase in the percentage of women in parliament (from 0% to 20%), (based on the introduction of a new quota for women in parliament) and had the biggest overall score improvement relative to 2006 of any country in the Middle East.

A poll conducted by a former lecturer Ahmed Abdel-Raheem in 2013 to female students at Al-Lith College for Girls at Um al-Qura University, Mecca, found that 79% of the participants in the poll did not support the lifting of the driving ban for women. One of the students who took part in the poll commented: "In my point of view, female driving is not a necessity because in the country of the two holy mosques every woman is like a queen. There is (someone) who cares about her; and a woman needs nothing as long as there is a man who loves her and meets her needs; as for the current campaigns calling for women's driving, they are not reasonable. Female driving is a matter of fun and amusement, let us be reasonable and thank God so much for the welfare we live in.

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 show an ID card or is fully covered. These conditions make complaints against the guardians themselves extremely difficult.

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 wrongdoing can be enough for her to be subject to violence in the name of honour.

Sexual segregation which keeps wives, sisters and daughters from contact with stranger men, follows from the extreme concern for female purity and family honour. Social events are largely predicated on the separation of men and women; the mixing of non-kin men and women at parties or the like is extremely rare and limited to some of the modernist Western-educated families. Women who are seen socializing with a man who is not a relative, can be harassed by the mutaween, even charged with committing adultery, fornication or prostitution.

Some critics complain that this constitutes an underutilization of women's skills, since females make up 70% of the students in Saudi institutes of higher education. Some jobs taken by women in almost every other country were reserved for men in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi delegation to the United Nations International Women's Year conference in Mexico City in 1975 and the Decade for women conference in Nairobi in 1985, was made up entirely of men.

The few shops that employed women were "quickly closed by the religious police" (aka Hai'i). Women responded by boycotting lingerie shops, and in June 2019 King Abdullah issued another decree giving lingerie shops one year to replace men workers with women. This was followed by similar decrees for shops and shop departments specializing in other products for women, such as cosmetics, abayas and wedding dresses. The decrees came at "the height of the Arab Spring" and were "widely interpreted" by activists as an attempt to preempt "pro-democracy protests." However the policy has meant further clashes between conservatives and Hai'a men on the one hand, and the ministry, women customers and employees at female-staffed stores on the other. In 2013, the Ministry and the Hai'a leadership met to negotiate new terms. In November 2013, 200 religious police signed a letter stating that female employment was causing such a drastic increase in instances of ikhtilat, that "their job was becoming impossible.

 
 

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