Grassroots Activism By Saudi Women Make Women’s Rights A Contemporary Issue

In Saudi Arabia, women have limited independence to make decisions. Under the guardianship system operated in the country, women require the consent of a male adult, usually their father or husband to travel, marry, work or carry out tasks outside the home. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are denied a licence to drive a car in public places. A very strict, conservative interpretation of Islamic Law fuelled by cultural norms of set roles for men and women and tradition is at the foundation of this decision. The Saudi Arabian monarchy follows the Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam, the religion of the Saudi people. International organizations criticize Saudi Arabia’s attitude towards women and perceive it to be oppressive as Saudi women lack personal liberty. In 2016, the World Economic Forum published its Global Gender Gap Report which ranked Saudi Arabia 141st out of 145 countries for gender parity. When Saudi Arabia was formed, religion and politics were interwoven to ensure the monarchy would maintain its position of strength. In the 1970s when western societal influences appeared in Saudi Arabia, religious leaders, anxious to protect Islamic values, sought and obtained consent to appoint religious police. Their main function has been to ensure that traditional religious beliefs and values are upheld in daily life.It is important to understand there is no religious foundation for the current Saudi social norms as in the past rural women drove cars to carry out both business and family tasks.

In 1990, some Saudi women voiced their disapproval of the social norms perceiving them to be both discriminatory and unjust. These women targeted failure to be given a licence to drive in a public place to symbolize their plight. They drove through the streets of Riyadh. Government officials responded by using their power to punish these women who had initiated civil disobedience. A Saudi cleric then passed a religious decree making women driving a possible sinful practice. The Ministry of Interior was then compelled to support the decree as it had the support of the religious institution. Observed tradition in practice then became law. Continued persistent protest action at a grassroots level has continued in this area and on the guardianship system for more than 25 years. A women’s movement has formed within Saudi Arabia and continues to highlight inequalities. Efforts to date, with minor success at giving women more freedom, have not been favoured by those who hold power; the conservative, religious sector wants to impose its preference on others to keep its power base. Small concessions have been gained as King Salman issued a decree providing opportunities for women in May 2017. Government agencies have been asked to provide a record of services women can seek without permission or the presence of a male guardian. Additionally, the organizations will provide transportation for all female employees, which is a win for those women who work in these organizations. The guardianship section appears to be for areas where no legal provisions apply and where it was historically requested. Having to rely on a male member of your family, a hired male driver or an Uber driver for transportation provides obstacles. There are issues around time, financial payment, economic factors and safety and when used such risks are bigger than those involved in allowing women to drive. When using a hired driver or Uber driver women are in a confined space with an unrelated male driver which is the situation religious conservatives seek to avoid. Manal-al-Sharif notes this contradiction in her interview on Fresh Air.

Unfortunately, Saudi society does not appear to have gained a consensus on whether to give Saudi women more independence and freedom. Activism at an everyday level carried out by concerned women has highlighted their concerns and ensured their lack of independence and freedom has not been relegated to minor levels and regarded as of very little importance. Various forms of civil disobedience frequently related to being unable to obtain a driver’s licence and more latterly over guardianship issues have ensured women’s rights remain a contested political issue in Saudi Arabia. Several members of the extended Royal Family have spoken out in favour of women driving. Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal supports women driving on Twitter. He explains his stance is based on improving the Saudi economy and facilitating job growth. He also clarified women not being granted licences to drive in public places is a political decision made by those who hold power. Saudi Prince Faisal Bin Abdullah, a former education minister also supports women driving and believes it will happen. Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, Head of the Shoura Council, also supports women driving if a clear system to enable this can be developed. The Shoura Council is a very important group which advises the King on economic matters, which makes his viewpoint very significant. In contrast, an opposing view is held by the highest Saudi cleric, The Grand Mufti. He believes women who drive will be exposed to possible evil from men. No official polls are available to ascertain the demand and depth of reform in this area.

Global attention is a field, which could also facilitate reform for women’s rights as Saudi Arabia has been elected to chair the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. Joelle Tanguy, the United Nations Women Director, thought about this and spoke about the evolving role of women in Saudi Arabia at the Alwaleed Philanthropies Conference in Riyadh. Her focus was on enhancing women’s economic empowerment quickly. Suggestions from Tanguy included setting targets, ways to encourage participation and removal of barriers, and publicly reporting on progress. Such measures would continue to highlight and facilitate women’s empowerment. Joelle Tanguy also emphasized that Saudi women own 40% of all private wealth, which could be used to generate economic empowerment of women and at the same time stimulate the Saudi Arabian economy, which is in need of reform. Such action would indirectly benefit all members of Saudi society.

To ensure future prosperity, those with power may have to modify their perspective on women’s rights and adopt a less conservative stance to meet economic reforms. Saudi Arabia has already set economic targets to increase the number of women in the workforce and reduce national unemployment. Entrenched positions have developed within Saudi Arabia on this issue because of the confrontational approach used by those who hold power. This is not conducive to finding solutions and moving forward. Instead, the politicization of women’s issues has caused the focus to be that of conflict, rather than looking for common ground. Resistance to cultural change and advancement then becomes the predictable response. Women graduating from university live under archaic rules and consequently have little opportunity to use their skills.

Effective long term win-win solutions must be decided upon by the Saudi people themselves, and need to include the views of women. By focusing on the economic empowerment of women and looking for areas of commonality, the lives of Saudi women could be improved and enriched. As well, making the country economically viable for the future involves the empowerment of women and will accelerate its progression rate while making an improved quality of life for all citizens of Saudi Arabia.

Louisa Slack