Despite recent media attention stemming from Saudi Arabia's recent legislative decision to allow women the right to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections, the truth remains that Saudi Arabian women remain some of the most tightly-controlled and oppressed populations in the world in terms of legislation and cultural practices -- both of which prohibit them from having the same rights as men. In viewing the existence and role of Saudi Arabian women in society, the struggle towards equality remains one that is both difficult and unprecedented largely because of the cultural, economic, and educational burdens that exist within the country, along with legislation on women's rights lingering years behind that of the western world.
Women's rights in Saudi Arabia are largely defined by the teachings of Islam and Islamic Law known as Sharia, which are based on the Qur'an and the teachings of Muhammad. While religious law does not explicitly place burdens and restrictions upon Saudi women, the men in power have long been given the power to interpret the unwritten laws of the Qur'an in a manner that usually falls in line with Islamic and tribal customs. The conservative traditionalist teachings within Saudi Arabia can be traced to the conservative values upon which Islam centers, and many Saudi women have come to support the teachings of Islam -- including their own oppression and submission to men -- as standards which must be upheld.
To begin looking into the oppressed life of a Saudi woman, one must first look at the most stringent restrictions placed upon her. For example, all females in Saudi Arabia must have a male guardian, typically a father or husband. This guardian has duties to and rights over the women he is placed in charge of in many aspects of daily life including granting permission for: marriage, divorce, travel, education, employment, opening a bank account, elective surgery, etc. (Meijer, 2010, p.91). Only in 2008, was the official law -- not the custom -- requiring a guardian's permission for a woman to seek employment repealed (Coleman, 2010, p.15).
For Saudi women, nearly every action undertaken by them carries with it the chance that an action may be deemed disrespectful to her guardian, and therefore her family. In Saudi Arabia, male guardianship of a woman carries with it the duty of "honor" which can be shown to a guardian via a woman's modesty and respectability. As a man provides for a woman in every aspect of Saudi culture, so does culture say that the woman should provide honor that is reflected upon her guardian. If a woman brings dishonor upon her guardian and therefore her family, Saudi Arabian cultural customs allow for the "taking care of" the woman by the guardian in whatever manner he should see fit.
So with this allowance has come the concept of honor killings in Saudi Arabia, in which a woman is killed by a member of her family -- often her guardian -- in an attempt to repent for and remove the shame she has brought upon her family by acting in a manner deemed shameful and dishonorable by her guardian and therefore society. Such honor killings, as archaic as they may sound, have not been appeased with the passing of time. Instances occurring as late as 2008 have sparked significant attention in the media. For instance, in April of 2008, a woman was beaten severely and shot dead by her father when she was discovered talking to a man via the social networking site Facebook. Additionally, in 2009, the murder of two young Saudi women, aged 19 and 21 gained public attention when they were beaten to death by their brother for speaking to a man in a public marketplace.
As seen, the cultural burdens placed upon women center largely around the notions of respect and modesty. Therefore, women undertake the practice of "purdah," which maintains the exclusion of women from the public male sphere of economic, social and political life (Nazneen, 1996, p.43). According to Mernissi, purdah divides all social spaced into sex-related ones and keeps female sexuality under male control (Mernissi, 1975, p.15). In Saudi Arabia, the abiding by purdah includes the wearing of a two-piece dress which covers the whole body from head to toe, which includes a head covering -- called a hijab -- and a full black cloak -- called an abaya (Nazneen, 1996, p.43).
Economic and Educational Burdens
In Saudi Arabia, women are taught that their primary role is to raise children and take care of their husband, family, and household. Therefore, their economic rights are minimal within Saudi Arabian society. Sharia allows women to work only in an instance that is deemed necessary for the support of her family, such as in the instance of a woman being widowed. Otherwise, a woman may not seek any work that is found to lead to the neglect of her "essential duties" within the home, and such employment must be agreed to by her guardian and other male members of her family.
In viewing the economic status of women in Saudi Arabia in comparison to Muslim nations such as the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Malaysia, where the rate of woman working is over 40%, Saudi Arabia falls far behind at a rate of between 5% and 15%, which has been long-described as "painfully slow" by the outside world and by Saudi women who have emigrated out of the country and made their opinions known publically (Hanley, 2010, p.46).
Comparable is the state of educational rights for the Saudi woman. While Saudi women are quite literate and receive early elementary education in a segregated schooling system away from Saudi boys, higher education is seen minimally in viewing Saudi women. For instance, certain fields such as law and pharmacy were never available to women until recently. While forward-thinking families allow women to enroll in higher education, the aforementioned customs of male guardianship and purdah hinder the ability for women to achieve higher education on a more universal level.
Women who do find themselves allowed to enroll in higher education are primarily encouraged to study service industries or the social sciences; education, medicine, public administration, natural sciences, social sciences and Islamic studies are deemed "appropriate" for women, and as of 2007, 93% of women who achieved degrees received them in these fields (Baki, 2008, p. 28).
Changes in Legislation
Recently, improvements have been made to Saudi legislation regarding women's rights, including the allowing of women to vote and run in the 2015 Saudi Arabian municipal elections. Though far behind the women's liberation movements of other countries, such a milestone had been largely heralded around the world as a long-overdue step in the right direction for the Saudi Arabian government and society as a whole.
The move for Saudi women to vote arrived in the midst of many Saudi women activists fighting for their rights, which includes the right to drive as well as the right to vote (Hanley, 2010, p.74). This particular change in legislation will further allow women to be appointed to the Shura Council, a group that discusses Saudi Arabian issues and policies -- which is currently all male according to National Public Radio. Still, while women are thrilled about the recent advances, many men are not as pleased. Despite this displeased attitude, the Saudi government and Saudi royalty continue to move toward equality for women, which was interestingly largely unprecedented prior to 2005 when Saudi princess Loulwa Al-Faisal began speaking on women's rights around the world.
Al-Faisal has long noted the need for women's rights in Saudi Arabia and has worked to dispel the "Western image of Saudi women being downtrodden slaves to men" (Hanley, 2010, p.73). The princess noted that as time as progressed, so has the role of women, and so will that role continue to progress as time continues to press on. In addition to being confident that women will soon be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, Al-Faisal notes that the progress that has been made in recent years has been significant in terms of women's rights, regardless of the discrepancy between Saudi legislation and that of the western world.
As seen, the oppression suffered by Saudi Arabian women is such that women and men in the western world find conditions hard to understand, much less relate to. While changes are beginning to come to the forefront in terms of women's liberation in the country, the sad truth remains that such government action may be considered too little too late in the minds of many women who have suffered oppression throughout the centuries. While the government promises the dawning of a new day in terms of women's rights in their capacity to vote and run in the 2015 election, the status of the current situation in Saudi Arabia tends to overshadow such news.
While the media has jumped at the opportunity to highlight this new right for women, many hindrances to true…