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The Saudi Governments Human Rights Violations Against Women, and

Their Political Implications

-Thanks to Katie for inviting me to speak at this event.


It is no secret that there is a great disparage in rights between men

and women in Saudi Arabia. Being a kingdom that abides by the

Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam, the government has

traditionally had very conservative views on the level of free

participation women should have in public life. Western countries

decry these practices as being discriminatory and institutionalized

sexism. However, some women within defend these practices as an

integral part of their faith and traditions. In these next seven minutes,

I will be providing an overview of womens legal rights in Saudi Arabia,

the inhibiting factors in female equality in the country, and any

indications for the future.

Disparage between Men and Women in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has an enormous gender gap between males and

females. The World Economic Forums 2016 Gender Gap Report

ranked Saudi Arabia as 141/144 countries reviewed. If you will look at

the handout that was passed to you, you will notice that Saudi Arabian

women are nearly equal to men in both education and health. Their

literacy rates and enrollment in all levels of education are nearly equal.

Yet their levels of economic and political participation are woeful.

Women average one fourth of the annual income men do. A man is 70
percent more likely to be a technical or professional worker than a

woman, despite equal levels of education. In terms of government

participation, women are 8 percent as politically empowered as men.

This dearth in economic and political equality stems from

government laws that inherently disadvantage women by a modern

societys standards. Women were only given the right to vote in

municipal elections in December 2015. While 978 women had

registered in that campaign, they were still required to be represented

by a man. Thirty-eight women were elected or appointed to councils

after this election, but the councils containing women were segregated

by sex. Women voter enrollment was 130,000, while male voter

registration was 1.35 million. Polling stations were segregated by

gender. Women had to be driven to these polling stations, as they are

still not legally allowed to drive themselves.


The issue of women driving has been a point of heated

discussion for critics of the Saudi government. While there is no

national written law that explicitly prohibits women from driving, the

law does require drivers licenses to be distributed locally. These

licenses are not granted to women, which makes women driving

effectively illegal. After a Saudi woman posted a YouTube video of her

driving, she was arrested for, besmirching the kingdoms reputation

abroad and stirring up public opinion. Saudi clerics say that it is

haram, or forbidden, for a woman to drive, claiming that it would

require a woman to uncover her face, crowd the streets to the point

where men are prevented from driving, and erode traditional values.

The Saudi government suppresses dissent against this law. In March

2016, Saudi journalist Alaa Brinji was sentenced to four years in prison

and was handed an eight-year travel ban for tweeting criticisms of

Saudi religious authorities and supporting a womens right to drive.


By far the most inhibiting factor in a Saudi womens equal

participation in society is the discriminatory system of male

guardianship. Women are required permission from a male guardian,

who can be any male direct relative, to travel outside the country,

marry, be released from prison, obtain healthcare, and work. To travel,

they must be driven by a male. There are few restrictions on the

minimum age of marriage, since marriage is a contract between a

male suitor and the father of the woman. This results in child marriage

occurring, which further prevents a woman from participating in

economic or political life.


There have been encouraging signs that womens rights are

improving in Saudi Arabia. The late King Abdullah, who died in 2015,

expressed a desire to improve the standing of women in Saudi society,

saying, I believe strongly in the rights of women. My mother is a

woman. My sister is a woman. My daughter is a woman. My wife is a

woman. I believe the day will come when women will drive. In fact if

you look at the areas of Saudi Arabia, the desert, and in the rural

areas, you will find that women do drive. The issue will require

patience. In time I believe that it will be possible. I believe that

patience is a virtue. Before the king died, he appointed 30 women to

the Shura Council, which acts as the advising body for the king.

Women expressed joy at being allowed to vote in the 2015 municipality

elections. In an interview with BBC, a Saudi womens rights activist

said that, I am not really worried about the number, or to have any

women winningthe fact that we have gone through this exercise is

what really matters.

However, while some legislation may grant more rights to

women, it is still not culturally acceptable for women to have equal

rights to men. King Abdullah, when asked why he could not make a

decree as king to allow women to drive, remarked that, I value and

care of my people as I would my eyeI respect my people. It is

impossible that I would do anything that is not acceptable to my

people. Because unrelated men and women do not usually mix, Saudi

men are not used to interacting with women in the work place, or

seeing women in government positions. The norm is a patriarchal

society, and social norms take a long time to change. Many Saudi

women themselves feel that their rightful place is in the home. The
Shura Council recommended in 2014 to allow women over the age of

30 to drive, with a curfew of 8pm, but this was never enacted. The

hope of King Abdullah was that as Saudi Arabia continues to open up to

the world, the views of its people will gradually change to the point

where women are more accepted in society. This will most likely not

happen in the near future, but if past legislation is any indication of

improvements to womens human rights in the future, then change is

certainly possible.