Saudi Arabia: Behind the Veil

Women and girls: do you play or compete in a sport? Do you wear the clothes that you have decided you want to wear? Do you sit in the same classes, offices, and restaurants as men and boys? Do you drive a car? Do you go to the doctor whenever you would like or need to? Could you imagine not being able to do those things, or possibly only be allowed to do them with the “protection” of a man, a man who is related to you? In Saudi Arabia, women are not considered of equal value to men and experience what can be viewed as punitive restrictions to their freedom.

A cartoon for the #women2drive movement drawn by Carlos Latuff

Violations against women and women’s rights are common throughout the Arab World. However, Saudi Arabia is one of the most prominent offenders. There are numerous abuses that compromise women’s freedom in Saudi Arabia, including restriction of movement, decision-making, and personal expression; limited participation in athletics; violence; segregation; and rape. According to Reuter’s reporter Karrie Kehoe, “Saudi Arabia is polled third-worst overall for political representation and inheritance rights” out of countries in the Arab World.

The primary oppressive policy in Saudi Arabia is the requirement that Saudi women be escorted by a male guardian “whenever they leave the house.” These male guardians are referred to as mahram, which in Arabic means forbidden. This terminology shows the intensity that Saudi laws place on the limitations of women. Without their mahram, or their mahram’s permission, women are not allowed drive, travel or obtain passports, go to school, open a bank account, or get married or divorced, according to The Telegraph. One of the most publicized violations of women’s rights is the ban on women driving. In Saudi Arabia women are not permitted to drive themselves, and foreign women visiting Saudi Arabia are not allowed to rent cars on their own or drive them. Loujain Hathloue, a Saudi women’s rights activist, once attempted to drive herself across the border into Saudi Arabia. She was arrested and imprisoned for 73 days without trial.

There are several enforcers of these laws and bans oppressing women, one being the mutawa, or the ‘Religious Police.’ The mutawa is in charge of enforcing Shari’a Law, or Islamic Law, in Saudi Arabia, and they take their job extremely seriously. Saudi women are strongly encouraged to follow a strict dress code requirement which consists of an abaya, which is a long dress (typically black) covering all skin but the head and which women are required to wear in public, and a hijab, or headscarf. The Week quoted the Arab News saying “women should wear ‘modest’ clothes that do not ‘show off their beauty,’” and in 2002 fifteen Saudi schoolgirls were killed in a fire because “the mutawa wouldn’t let them escape without their headscarves and abayas.” The mutawa, as well as many mahrams, use violence to ensure that women follow the strict rules imposed on them. According to Hala al-Dosari, another Saudi women’s rights activist, “violence is used [in] a disciplinary or controlling way.” ITV’s documentary Saudi Arabia: Uncovered reveals acts violence directed toward women; scenes show women being shoved to the ground by men, one woman falling into a grocery store aisle, and even a gruesome public beheading.

Woman on the floor after being pushed to the ground by her mahram, screenshot from Saudi Arabia: Uncovered

An additional form of oppression in Saudi Arabia is segregation. Almost every public space, including work spaces, banks, universities, and restaurants, have separate spaces for women and men. According to journalist Maureen Dowd, “restrictions on mingling between unrelated members of the opposite sex remain severe [in Saudi Arabia]. Recently, a Saudi cleric advised men who come in regular contact with unrelated women to consider drinking their breast milk, thereby making them in a sense ‘relative,’ and allowing everyone to breath a sense of relief. An example of the intensity to which Saudi society follows these laws is a sign placed recently in the front window of a Starbucks coffee shop in Riyadh reading: “Please no entry for ladies only send your driver to order thank you.” When journalist Dowd ordered a coffee in the “deserted men’s section” in the café of her hotel in Jidda, the waiter refused to serve her until she “moved five feet back to the women’s section.”

This segregation has profound consequences on the making of the laws in Saudi Arabia. Women were only allowed to vote in the municipal elections for the first time in 2015, as mentioned by The Week. This is the first of several steps currently being taken in Saudi Arabia to help women gain more rights. There was a campaign called Women2Drive in Saudi Arabia and, although unsuccessful, it helped to spread the message of female oppression in the Saudi Kingdom. Additionally, according to Human Rights Watch there is discussion “of introducing physical education for girls in Saudi public schools,” which would bring and end to the current prohibition of sports for women.

However, there are still many steps that need to be taken before Saudi women have basic human rights. In Saudi Arabia, marital rape is not considered rape, and sufferers of rape are in danger of being accused and charged with adultery. Additionally, rape and violence are not confined by age or social status. Journalist Donna Abu-Nasr from the Washington Post explained the severity of the Saudi position on rape when she wrote about the story of a young girl who went to the police in 2006 “to report she was gang-raped by seven men,” and was then punished and “sentenced to more lashes than one of her alleged rapists received.” This is a common tragedy for women and girls who claim to be raped without proper witnesses, referring to their mahrams.

As a result of the difficulty of getting into Saudi Arabia as a tourist, journalist, or activist, it is hard to support the women from within Saudi Arabia. One of the main reasons that many believe that Saudi Arabia has not been influenced by other states is because its power as one of the largest oil producers in the world has countries reliant upon said resource, which makes them reluctant to jeopardize their supply of the oil. One strategy to spread awareness and support is to distribute the message of ongoing abuses to countries where women have the right to speak their minds. This may compel governments to pressure Saudi Arabia into changing or at least modifying its ways. Other ways of effecting change are contributions of funds or time to supporting campaigns such as Women2Drive and “The Drive For Freedom,” spearheaded by women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif.

Saudi Arabia has taken a few small steps forward in improving women’s rights. However, it remains one of the most inhospitable places for women to live, and there are weekly beheadings in Deera Square, now referred to as Chop Chop Square. Women and men around the world should be aware of the infringement of rights that women in Saudi Arabia endure to this day. As a finishing note, it is important to remember that each culture has its own set of values, and that each culture is entitled to pursue those values, however, others still must recognize when there are abuses against basic human rights.

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