Saudi Women’s Rights
Stuck at a Red Light
ASMAA AL-MOHAMED Journalist and Women’s Rights Activist; Online Editor for Al Arabiya; Saudi Arabia
PERHAPS NOWHERE IN THE WORLD do women lead a stranger life than in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi women constantly endure being treated like secondclass citizens, even as men refer to them as “well-kept pearls and hidden treasures.” Despite everything said about the importance of women, women’s rights are still a chink in the Saudi state’s armor, and one of the most hotly debated, yet murkiest, topics in the country. It is difﬁcult to even prioritize the long list of challenges facing Saudi women, which range from their political and legal disenfranchisement, to their curtailed liberties and restraints imposed by their legal guardians. The humanitarian crises facing women in Saudi Arabia are extreme and there is often limited recourse for women who have suffered sexual abuse or rape. However, this article will primarily focus on those offenses that are permissible, not just in practice, but also under the Saudi legal framework. Struggling by Neighborhood Standards Glancing at the countries bordering Saudi Arabia, which share similar customs, traditions and tribal afﬁliations with the Kingdom, women in the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries enjoy more robust political and civil rights. In Bahrain, for instance, women have served in parliament and as ministers, whereas Saudi women still need a mahram (a close male relative such as a father, son or uncle) to accompany them even to the supermarket. Other GCC countries, meanwhile, have used quota www.arabinsight.org
46 Gulf Women Speak Out
systems to guarantee women a place in parliament, where they mix freely with men and engage in face-to-face debate, enjoying true equality. Women from the other Gulf states represent their countries as ambassadors – unaccompanied by male supervisors – whereas in Saudi Arabia, a woman’s male guardian is required to give signed permission (either open or for a deﬁned period of time) in order for her to travel at all. There are striking examples of women in the other GCC countries serving as ministers, such as Kuwait University Political Science Professor Masouma al-Mubarak, who was the ﬁrst Kuwaiti female minister (See al-Mekaimi, page 54). She successfully served in a variety of ministry posts, ﬁrst as minister of planning, then as minister of “Saudi society can accept administrative development affairs, then minwomen’s success in various ister of transportation, and ﬁnally as minister ﬁelds, but cannot accept seeing of health in the 2007 cabinet. Saudi women, or coming into direct contact by comparison, are still not allowed to enter with them.” parliament as anything more than advisors; they cannot vote, much less serve as representatives. Even stranger, when Saudi men deem it necessary to consult women – generally on the more trivial local or social affairs – interaction between the sexes occurs only via video conferencing. The six women who serve as parliamentary advisors, the only political position women have attained in Saudi Arabia, seem to be there less in a serious capacity and more as décor. Dr. Nora Alyousif, one of the Kingdom’s six state-appointed parliamentary advisors, denies that her position is merely a diversionary tactic, meant to distract from the plight of Saudi women.1 She highlights the progress that has been made in Saudi Arabia, which has allowed a woman like her to become an advisor to the oil ministry: “The Saudi leadership is working hard on reform and supporting women … Seventy years ago we were completely isolated from the world. The changes which are taking place are unmistakable, and we have ﬁnally started opening up.” Alyousif maintains that Saudi women, thanks to King Abdullah, have been given “a strong push for participation, and we have noticed a number of women and female ministerial representatives joining the king on his foreign...