Guide: The Evolution of Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia
Updated: Mar 1
Saudi Arabia arguably have the widest gender divide in the world. Female subservience has always been the default, which sets a tone for both men and women on their roles in society and their ensuing unequal statuses.
This guide will explore the roots of gender inequality, highlight what progress has been made in furthering women’s rights, and what the future might hold.
Imposing Sharia Law
Despite some formal laws and regulations passed in Saudi Arabia, the country applies Sharia Law as its main national law. This is rooted in the Islamic faith and regarded as God’s command. It is not a codified system of law but is the governing framework in Saudi society. Although it sees men and women as moral equals in God’s eyes, the rights and obligations bestowed are not equal.
A key problem with Sharia Law when it comes to women’s rights is that its interpretation is historically patriarchal, and often not scrutinised in the same way as codified law in other countries. With national law rooted in a religious faith, it lacks impartiality, and in Saudi Arabia’s case atheists can even be considered terrorists. Even forms of protest or political rebellion can be adjudged terrorism if they are seen to "harm public order".
The basis of a guardianship is rooted in Sharia Law. Regardless of age or status, women in Saudi Arabia must have a male guardian (usually a father, brother, or husband). Historically, women have had to obtain permission from their guardian to do many activities, including travelling, opening a bank account, or getting married.
Guardianship enforces male ‘ownership’ of women, which sets the tone of life in Saudi Arabia. It is at the core of much of the gender imbalance. Extreme examples of ‘ownership’ in action include arranging marriages of young girls to older men to settle debts.
Archaic punishment & imprisonment for activism
In Saudi Arabia the punishments for crimes can be severe. Sentences are frequently punitive and brutal; lashings are routine. Additionally, public executions by firing squad or beheading are still commonplace, even for non-violent crimes.
In Saudi Arabia, the combination of loosely defined laws and such harsh punishments makes social change very difficult. Risking arbitrary arrests and heavy sentences can be intimidating. But for women’s rights activists – already considered subservient to men - lobbying against the status quo can be particularly dangerous. Female activists have been tried for a variety of serious crimes including trying to harm national security, terrorism, and advancing a foreign agenda.
Reforms – are they significant?
Despite the lack of equality in Saudi society, there has been some progress in women’s rights in recent times. What are the main changes, and are they truly progressive?
The right to drive
Until 2018, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world where women were not legally allowed to drive. Although this was a momentous victory for women’s rights, making headline worldwide, it also had many repercussions. Numerous activists who fought for this change were imprisoned and face trial; they may spend up to 20 years behind bars. Amnesty International reported extensive abuse suffered by detained activists, including physical and mental torture.
Loujain al-Hathloul (right) is a prominent campaigner who was detained and sentenced to years in prison for her activism. It is argued she was arrested for fighting for women’s right to drive, but the Saudi Kingdom deny this saying it is for mounting a campaign to undermine the royal family. This demonstrates how little political dissent will be tolerated.
Al-Hathloul’s family say she has been tortured but the Saudi courts have cleared prosecutors of this accusation. Many groups have highlighted the contrast between the Saudi claim of bestowing women the right to drive as empowering, with its imprisonment and torture of peaceful female activists like al-Hathloul.
Al-Hathloul’s case made headlines around the western world causing public outcry, in contrast to how it was represented in Saudi Arabia. State-owned Saudi newspapers claimed she had admitted to the offences despite her sister reporting their plans to appeal the conviction. Following the arrests of other female activists, a smear campaign was run branding them as traitors.
Even with significant advancements in women’s rights, when activists who helped create that change are not only imprisoned but called out as traitors and political dissidents in the press, it sets another roadblock for more positive action to follow.
What about other reforms?
Further changes, arguably more important if less symbolic than the right to drive, were made in 2019:
Women over 21 can obtain a passport and travel abroad without their male guardians’ permission.
A woman can register a marriage, death, or divorce, as well as her own children’s births.
A “female” can be considered a worker, not just a “male”.
There is a new protection against discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, disability, or age.
Despite these substantial changes, for Saudi women, there are still many elements of daily life which revolve around the permission of the male guardian, and women continue to face discrimination in many areas of life and society. Men can also still file cases against women under their guardianship for “disobedience” which can result in women being forcibly returned to their male guardian’s home, or even imprisoned.
What does the future hold?
The changing laws do demonstrate huge steps forward for Saudi women, but there is a still a long way to go. It has been argued that Saudi Arabia’s recent reforms are merely superficial, driven by economic and political needs not conviction, and how the Kingdom is viewed on the ‘world stage’. For many, the changes are bittersweet too, when the women’s rights activists who fought for them remain in jail and on trial for their peaceful advocacy. With non-violent activism still criminalised, the road to further change is slow and arduous. While there is still a long way to go before women have equal rights in Saudi Arabia, international pressure and scrutiny, such as the statement before the United Nations in 2019, is hoped to help with further progress. There are also instances of world leaders making tangible differences when they voice their opposition; George Bush in 2006 persuaded King Abdullah to commute a sentence for a woman on trial facing 200 lashings. Another beacon of hope is that Saudi women are now better educated than ever before, with 51% of graduates women. A lack of access to education is historically a key factor in restricting rights, so this development may well help create some lasting change and further progress in the future.
For more on this topic, head over to our section on Feminism and Gender Issues.