The treatment of women in Saudi Arabia

Following the humorous, yet chilling reality of the first all-male ‘Girls Council‘ in the province of Qassim, it seemed pertinent to write up a basic primer outlining the rights, or lack thereof, afforded to women living in the KSA – Canada’s biggest trading partner in the Middle-East.

Indeed, Prime Minister Trudeau, who likens himself as a modern-day feminist, should hold Riyadh to account for the abhorrent treatment of women, and perhaps bring attention to the regime’s behaviour when he finally gets a seat on the UN Security Council that he’s been arduously vying for.  However, were this to come to fruition, it appears not much of a difference would be made as no Resolutions have been directed towards the KSA (except in 1948). Even more so, the KSA also holds a seat on the Human Rights Council, a Council where Israel, the most democratic country in the Middle-East, holds the prestigious honour of receiving more UNHRC condemnations than the entire world combined.

Regardless of the politics, the real truth is that the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia is among the worst in the world, even in comparison to many other Muslim nations, some of whom have started to ease up on such restrictive practices.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world which does not allow women to drive.

A lot of the reason why Saudi Arabia is so regressive in many of their social policies is due to the fact that the government and many religious clerics adhere to a strict, austere sect of Islam called Wahhabism, which is based off of Salafism – a movement that originated in the 18th century which abhorred other sects of Islam for their increasing liberal and idolatrous ways.  Indeed, Wahhabists are against any sort of innovation or modern interpretations of Islam. Wahhabists govern and live by early and strict interpretations of the Qu’ran and Hadith, all the while priding Wahhabism as the purest form of Islam.

However, increasing economic modernization, as well as satellite TV/internet have afforded, and brought women’s rights to the forefront in the last 15 years or so.  Unfortunately, even in the case of ‘increasing liberalization’ (and I say that very loosely) for women, strict religious policies are still implemented from the top-down. It is important to note though, that due to the aforementioned reasons mentioned above, many people living in Saudi Arabia have developed a skepticism, if not a contemptuous attitude towards Wahhabism, so while they may keep up an appearance of adherence, many hold the religious doctrine in a lower regard in more private spaces.

Nonetheless, the government is very adamant about maintaining these policies, and show very little leeway for any who dare to break them.

In order to enforce these policies, the government hires a police force of around 5000 people called the ‘mutawa’ who’s job it is to patrol cities to enforce rules of sexual segregation and female dress codes.

Some of these policies are so strictly enforced, that when a fire broke out in a girl’s school in Mecca, some girls were actually prohibited from exiting the school as some had not properly donned their niqabs and abayas.  As a result, 15 girls were killed and 50 were injured.

Women in Saudi Arabia are expected to don this traditional garb, which only allows women to show their eyes.  Even if a woman commits the ‘sin’ of raising their mask to browse a book in a bookstore, they can face the risk of being chastised by the mutawa for doing so.

In order for a women to even go to said bookstore, they would need to be accompanied by a guardian or husband on their journey.  Women are not allowed to go out in public without being accompanied by a male.

Certainly, women have very little, if any rights and are completely subservient to their male guardians (fathers, uncles or older brothers).

Women are not allowed to mingle with unrelated men, are not afforded the right of choosing who they want to marry (unless receiving approval from said guardian) and some are even forced into marriage at a very young age. In 2009, an eight-year old girl was forced into marriage with a 47 year old man.

Moreover, men are allowed four wives, and women are allowed only one partner.  Furthermore, if a women gets a divorce (which is only afforded in extreme cases), they automatically lose custody of their children to the father.

Some ultra-conservative guardians refuse a woman’s basic right of letting them receive education, marriage or employment.  If a woman disobeys or goes against her guardian’s wishes, religious courts will rule in favour of punishment, subjugating these innocent girls to the wrath of their parents.

More so, if husbands feel ‘slighted’ by the way their wives are acting, they are afforded the right of beating them with weapons, as long as they do not ‘break bones, wound or cause blood to flow.’

The Qu’ran affords the right of men to beat a woman if they believe they are acting in ‘ill-conduct.’  The Qu’ran, where Wahhabist Saudi Arabia governs according to its scriptures, is very discriminatory and denigrating towards women.  According to scriptures, a son shall inherit as much as two daughters and a woman’s testimony in court is only worth half of a man’s testimony.

Furthermore, in Saudi Arabia, to prove the crime of rape, the rapist must confess to the crime or four male witnesses must come forward to confirm they saw the rape take place.

Even worse, many women in Saudi Arabia are subjected to ‘honour killings’, in which a member of the family will murder a woman if they feel they have committed any wrongdoings.

Honour killings in Saudi Arabia are actually a ‘daily occurrence‘, however, they are seldomly reported as there is little incentive to bring it to the attention of authorities, considering honour killings are often ignored and even encouraged.

Moreover, if a woman has committed the crime of ‘apostasy’ (renouncing or marrying outside of their religion), or adultery (acts deemed as unfaithful), religious courts will sentence these women to death and even subject them to barbaric practices such as public stoning.  If men commit these crimes they receive exponentially less harsher sentences.

Due to these extreme laws, women are forced into complete and utter servility in fear of their well-being and lives.  Women have such little rights that in order for daughters and wives to leave the house they have to wait for their husbands to get home from work.

As mentioned above however, albeit very imperceptible, there has been some progress made for women in Saudi Arabian society.

Most girls have recently been afforded the right of education, even to the point of university.  However, schools are gender segregated, and men are required to give lectures via closed circuit television in order to prevent unwanted interaction between men and women.

Certainly, gender segregation is prevalent in all forms of Saudi Arabian society.  There are gender segregated banks, hospitals, stores and businesses. In restaurants, there are sections for men which are open to view to the public and their are family sections which are closed/veiled.  Waiters (no waitresses), will often knock before bringing in food so that women can properly veil their faces.

Even in the modern workplace, women are not allowed to work in the same workplace as men, which is likely why the ‘Girls Council’ consisted of all men.

Saying this, there has still been a slight improvement over recent years in the case of women employment – even though it only stands at a paltry 15 percent.

There are multiple reasons for the low unemployment rate.  Conservatives bemoan the fact that women employment will end up in them taking jobs from men, and complain that men would harass women in the workplace, (however fail to hold men accountable for acting this way).  Also, women are only allowed to work in jobs, like teaching, nursing, banking and beauty salons, where they are only in contact with other women.

Guardians must also give permission for women to work.  Indeed, if approval is given, it is still very hard for women to work considering the fact they are not allowed to drive and that public transportation for women is unavailable, so a husband or male guardian would need to drive a woman to and from work, or hire a personal driver, which can be very costly.

On the international level, Saudi Arabia was one of only 3 countries in 2012 to not allow women participation in the Olympics.  External pressure threatened to ban the men’s team from attending the Olympics, so a couple women delegates were sent to the Olympics, where they participated in judo and track and field.  Some international pressure has forced Saudi Arabia to adopt to modern times, however the changes are still very miniscule.

Certainly, the realities of women living in Saudi Arabia are hellish.  They are treated as third-class citizens, regarded in worth as “half a man”, are completely under the will of their male guardians, some of whom who kill women, while facing no consequences in their doing so.  The unfortunate reality is that many in the KSA see women as objects, whose role it is to simply reproduce, tend to the children and satisfy their husbands.  They are not seen or regarded as regular people.

We, the people living in the West, who have been so luckily afforded with democracy and equal rights should interject and do what we can to pressure Saudi Arabia and other sharia-based countries to modernize their ways.  Unfortunately, our complicit governments and officials have disregarded morality and ethical practice due to the KSA’s abundance of oil.

About Jake Beaumont 58 Articles
BA in Media Studies from the University of Guelph. Graduated from the University of Guelph-Humber with a Diploma in Journalism. Former Research Analyst for Honest Reporting Canada. Published in the Huffington Post, Vancouver Province and many other newspapers across Canada. Specializes in Middle-East politics. Currently situated in Toronto.


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