Saudi Policies toward Women: Conservative Ideals vs. Feminist Growth

 /  March 3, 2019, 6:22 p.m.

Saudi Women

A Saudi woman who fled to Thailand on grounds of fearing “for her life” was granted asylum by Canada on January 11. Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, eighteen, claimed to have been abused by her father and brother and had her fundamental freedoms taken away. She shared how she was locked in her bedroom for six months as punishment for cutting her hair short, forced to practice Islam against her own will, and subjected to draconian male guardianship laws in place in Saudi Arabia.

Once she reached Bangkok, al-Qunun demanded to meet with the representatives of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. With the help of her social media campaign on Twitter using the hashtag #SaveRahaf, she was able to garner international support of thousands of followers. The campaign attracted various international human rights organizations and foreign governments, which then started applying pressure on Thai officials not to extradite al-Qunun and expose her to potential danger if reunited with her family. As a global proponent of accepting refugees, Canada granted al-Qunun asylum, who then took a flight for Toronto and arrived at the Pearson International Airport to be greeted by Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. Al-Qunun is now in a safe house in Toronto at the request of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Though the support al-Qunun received from the international community is uplifting, thousands of women continue to fight for freedom in a fundamentally unequal Saudi Arabia. In a society grounded on conservative laws, women continue to be suppressed in the name of adhering to conservative values—grounded on either religious views or political beliefs.

However, under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the gender disparity in Saudi Arabia country is not as set and clear as it seems. Saudi Arabia is currently navigating two fundamentally opposing attitudes towards regarding gender equality. One is based on a traditional conservative mentality that is fundamentally opposed to the idea of gender parity. However, with his ambitious Vision 2030 plan aimed at bolstering the country’s socio-economic power, the Crown Prince stands before the challenge of adopting a second, more progressive standpoint, whereby Saudi authorities decide to liberate women in the name of promoting the country’s economic strength. The Crown Prince intends to do this with his Vision 2030, while adhering to traditionalist views on women—a task that remains virtually unattainable unless religious and political views evolve.

Where Do Women Stand in Saudi Arabia?

Women have historically been subjected to unequal treatment by Saudi society, a norm very much in line with the policies of the Saudi government. Today, Saudi women remain subjected to a system of male guardianship laws that limits many of women’s fundamental liberties by requiring the consent of a male guardian: a father, a brother, a cousin, an uncle, or a son. The fundamental liberties that require consent include, but are not limited to, attending school (domestically and abroad), working, marrying, travelling, and wearing clothes of one’s choice.

Motivated by a strict and narrow interpretation of Sharia law, this consent is not changed by the woman’s age or education level.

One of the notable reforms enacted by the Crown Prince was lifting the driving ban on women. Prior to the policy change, only men were allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, making it the only country in the world to prohibit women from doing so. The decision to reverse this law followed a mass petition to the King by thousands of women calling for the abolition of male guardianship laws.

Even prior to bin Salman’s ascension to power, Saudi Arabia is gradually becoming more lenient in regards to increased gender parity. In 2000, the country ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, among other reforms, which made it easier for women to work and allowed them to vote and run as candidates in municipal elections.

Nevertheless, these reforms proved insufficient in many ways and still fail to guarantee a variety of basic rights to women. Although the government loosened its stance toward women’s driving rights, it was not ready to allow for legal dissent. Since May of last year, Saudi authorities have arrested more than a dozen women activists and their male supporters, and barred others, who advocated for lifting the driving ban and other discriminatory laws, from leaving the country. Human Rights Watch started a campaign shedding light on alleged cases of torture of the detained, some of whom still remain behind bars, and called on car manufacturers to stand by the detained activists that fought for the driving ban. The government’s crackdown on dissent stands as testament to the persisting discriminatory attitudes toward women from the government and show their precarious status in Saudi Arabia.

The Crown Prince’s Vision 2030: Envisioning a Saudi Future With(out) Women?

The question then becomes how Saudi Arabia will deal with its rampant gender inequality, while trying to pursue its ambitious Vision 2030 plan. Led primarily by the Crown Prince, the plan aims to “reduce Saudi Arabia's dependence on oil, diversify its economy, and develop public service sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, recreation, and tourism.” Given Saudi Arabia’s extensive reliance on oil and the peril of this dependence, Saudi authorities found it necessary to grow economically in other areas and become more stable.

An important way to do so, as outlined by Vision 2030, is to improve human capital. The Crown Prince remarks in the foreword of Vision 2030 that, “because human capital is a crucial factor in the success of any substantial project, we aim to launch a thorough program for nurturing our human talent.” This assumes the involvement of women in the workforce and parity to men in a recruiting process void of discriminatory attitudes. However, at the same time Vision 2030 is grounded on living by the conservative male guardianship laws, a barrier to the full participation of women in the workforce.

The official website of Vision 2030 mentions the word “women” exactly twice. The first instance is when the foreword mentions that “together we will continue building a better country, fulfilling our dream of prosperity and unlocking the talent, potential, and dedication of our young men and women” (italics added). The second is one of the goals of Vision 2030, which is described as increasing “women’s participation in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent.” The government has evidently started to realize the tremendous potential of women’s economic participation in boosting Saudi’s economic growth and development over the long run. Women outnumber men in higher education, and excluding them from the workforce and other aspects of life in the country serves as a major blow to Saudi growth.

The good thing about Vision 2030 is that it compelled Saudi authorities, including the Crown Prince, to somewhat detach from the traditionalist mentality that was preventing them from recognizing the potential of women. The Crown Prince himself in an interview with Bloomberg conceded that “women have rights in Islam that they’ve yet to obtain.” While this is certainly commendable, viewing women as mere tools to achieve economic growth is problematic in itself.

Saudi Arabia is only making very slow steps toward full gender equality. Part of the reason this is the case is that the mentality behind these changes is not ideological. The government seems to view women as engines of economic growth, rather than members of society just like men. And while positive, incremental change is happening, the Saudi government has an obligation to respect not only the lucrative and economic value of women, but also acknowledge them as full and integral parts of Saudi society, like al-Qunun desired to be. Only when Saudi authorities uproot their strict and intolerant mentality will they be able to truly achieve growth and set example to other countries with similar problems.

Ken Krmoyan is a Staff Writer for The Gate.

The image used was licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License. The original was taken by Tribes of the World and can be found here.

Ken Krmoyan


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