Andreea Badiu-Slabu is one of Breaking the Glass Ceiling’s regular contributors.
Being a woman in Saudi Arabia can be quite challenging despite multiple changes encouraged by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. Saudi laws impose that women must be separated from men in food outlets. Even most of the schools are single sex. The authorities think these laws keep tradition alive and the society stable. Saudi Arabia is the nation that does not allow women to live by themselves, let alone travel abroad. Women aren’t considered to be full legal adults by the state. They depend on their guardians who have the power to decide their destiny. In some cases, employers won’t hire women without permission from her guardian. Every day women live their lives inside the boundaries imposed by their guardians. They can’t work, study, leave prison or even receive hospital treatment without permission from them. The Human Rights Watch said in a report that this system of guardianship is “the most significant impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country.” The guardianship system was institutionalized gradually since 1932 and it gave overtime power to men. It has an impact on the economy of the country as well because half of the population is under control.
“Sometimes we’re in the 21st century, and sometimes we’re in the 19th”, said a professional Riyadh woman.
Religion and politics still go hand in hand in Saudi Arabia in what power is concerned. Hearing the stories of women who live there is important to acknowledge the woman’s status in society. Saudi Arabia is on the 20th place out of 22 for women’s rights among the Arab states and on the 130th place out of 142 countries concerning the gender gap. Also, women represent 20% of the workforce. In the upcoming years, women will no longer want to stay silent. 2015 marked the first time Saudi women voted in the municipal councils.
The deputy crown prince established the National Transformation Program 2020 in 2016 to increase women’s economic participation. But, the problem is that the prince blamed women and not the guardianship system for the low employment rate. In the end, this program will only bring benefits to women who have their guardian’s approval to work. Lots of women have tried to oppose the guardianship system through petitions and other ways but have had no chance of success. The system is deeply embedded in society and it will take time to cut its roots. Last year, a man was jailed because he denounced the system on social media. Yet, some things are starting to change.
“We are running very fast to change very fast. I think we should slow down a little bit—so people accept it”, says Nailah Attar, the co-founder of Baladi, a national initiative which means “My country”.
In 2012 the first female lawyer was licensed by the courts and the first women-led law firm was established in Jeddah. In the same year, women were permitted to compete for the first time in the Olympics. Furthermore, at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, both women and men can now participate in the same lectures. But, the gender gap continues to be high. Some say that maybe a look at the past might bring hope for women. Prophet Muhammad required that men and women fulfill the pilgrimage to Mecca together and that women show their face when they go around the Kaaba. A long time ago, protocols for what a woman should wear varied across regions, one’s family and class. In certain Saudi regions women went out in short abayas.
“Sitting with a man you are not married to, in a restaurant? No problem, as long as you were behaving correctly. And then—the change. Some twisting, I will say. In the mind, in the heart”; says a retired Riyadh pediatrician in her 70s
This year King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud issued a decree that allows women to have access to government services without the guardian’s approval. A campaigner for women’s rights said the decree “opens the door for discussion on the guardian system”. A few days ago, the media had its eyes on Saudi Arabia as women seated in the national stadium for the first time for the 87th anniversary of the founding of the kingdom. This follows the vision initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to make the kingdom independent from fossil fuels. The event attracted criticism as well, as some people did not agree with this kind of celebration. But change is taking place. As I was writing this piece I read that King Salman allowed women to drive through a decree. The order is said to be implemented by June 2018.
The Saudi Press Agency said, “The royal decree will implement the provisions of traffic regulations, including the issuance of driving licenses for men and women alike”
It takes time to adjust to change as seen in the case with women being able to drive. The police must be instructed to interact with women they do not know. Moreover, there is no infrastructure for women to drive. The country’s dependency on oil triggered this need to transform certain aspects. Although Saudi Arabia continues to be a conservative society ruled according to Shariah law, things are starting to improve for women.
Aldosari, Hala, 2016, “Guardians of the Gender Gap’, Foreign Affairs
Gorney, Cynthia, 2016, ‘The changing face of Saudi women’, National Geographic
Hubbard, Ben, 2017, ‘Saudi Arabia agrees to let women drive’, The New York Times
Nasseri, Ladane, 2017, ‘Saudi Women Seated in Stadium for First Time at Anniversary Gala’, Bloomberg