Saudi women are fighting for their freedom – and their hard-won victories are growingAlainna Liloia, University of Arizona
Saudi women will soon be allowed to obtain passports and travel without the permission of a male relative.
This new regulation, announced by the government in early August, eases one of the most limiting aspects of the Gulf country’s “guardianship system,” which puts men in charge of their female relatives.
Saudi women will also be allowed to register marriages, divorces and births and to receive official family documents without their guardian’s approval, but they must still get permission from male chaperones to marry, leave prison and move out from a domestic abuse shelter.
Social pressure likely means some Saudi women still won’t travel without family permission. Though it became legal for women to drive in 2018, familial disapproval has kept many women off the roads.
Saudi Arabia enforces a strict interpretation of Islamic law that sees gender separation and male authority as vital to preserving a moral Islamic society. But women are much more than victims in this patriarchal regime.
As a researcher who studies women’s movements across the Middle East, I have learned that Saudi women – like any large population – are a diverse group with different opinions and experiences. They attend school, work as journalists and airline pilots, scuba dive, meet friends for coffee – and, increasingly, defy the law to expand women’s rights.
The fight for equality
Saudi women’s new freedoms are part of broader reform efforts led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to modernize the conservative Muslim country of 33 million and to alleviate international human rights concerns.
But these legal advances have come coupled with the repression of the Saudi female activists who have pushed to reform the guardianship system. Women fought for decades for the right to drive cars, and before the ban was lifted last year several activists were arrested for very publicly getting behind the wheel. Many remain in prison.
Saudi women have also campaigned to abolish the guardianship system, circulating online petitions with the hashtag #IAmMyOwnGuardian and holding workshops to educate women on guardianship laws. A woman-created app called “Know Your Rights” gives women information on their legal rights.
Saudi women even make the most of laws forbidding gender mixing in public places, I’ve found.
In the private, women-only areas of malls, parks, restaurants, schools and coffee shops, women feel free to express their independence. They remove their abayas – the long black robes all Saudi women must wear – and talk openly, without male oversight.
Some women have even called for more gender-segregated places to give women more breathing room in this patriarchal society.
Saudi women have been attending university since the 1970s, but their educational opportunities have grown markedly over the past 15 years.
A government-funded study abroad program launched in 2005 sends tens of thousands of young Saudi women to the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and many other countries each year.
Saudi Arabia’s first women’s college, the Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University, was founded in 2010. With room for about 60,000 undergraduate students – the world’s largest all-women’s campus – the school aims to give female students better access to male-dominated fields like medicine, computer science, management and pharmacology.
Employment rates have not followed these educational trends.
Only 22% of Saudi women worked outside the home in 2016, compared to 78% of the male population, according to the World Bank.
Still, women can – and do – work in nearly all of the same fields as men, with the exception of “dangerous” fields like construction or garbage collection. Since Islamic law permits women to own and manage their own property, ever more Saudi women see employment as the path to financial independence.
There are female Saudi lawyers, like Nasreen Alissa, one of only a few women to run a law firm in Saudi Arabia and the inventor of the “Know Your Rights” app.
And just over half of all teachers in Saudi Arabia are female, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Saudi women also make up almost half the kingdom’s retail workers.
The Saudi government has set a goal of a 30% female labor participation rate by 2030. Though gender-mixing is often prohibited in the workplace, women are a key component of the kingdom’s ongoing “Saudization” efforts to replace non-Saudi workers with a local workforce.
Saudi Arabia began slowly expanding the rights of women after the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks, part of a rebranding effort to counter negative views of the country as a breeding ground for terrorism and religious fundamentalism.
Women have made particular progress in politics in recent years. In a series of firsts, women were appointed as deputy education minister in 2009, advisers to the king in 2010 and ambassador to the United States in 2019.
Two prominent women’s rights activists, Loujain Hathloul and Nassima Al-Sadah, were disqualified from running in 2015 for unspecified reasons.
In patriarchal Saudi Arabia, the women elected face significant barriers to performing even the limited duties of their office, which include overseeing garbage collection and issuing building permits. Some must attend council meetings via video conference to avoid being in the same room as men.
These challenges have not stopped Saudi women from working – both within and outside of the political system – to change their country.
“I was never but a good citizen that loved her country, a loving daughter and a hardworking student and a devoted worker,” wrote the Saudi activist Nouf Abdulaziz in a letter posted online after her arrest in June 2018.
Even facing jail, she “wished the best for” Saudi Arabia.
This story is an updated version of an article originally published March 25, 2019.