Saudi Arabia: Gender Roles and Human Rights

Subject: Sociology
Pages: 5
Words: 1381
Reading time:
8 min
Study level: PhD

Globally, people know Saudi Arabia for its rich oil reserves and its symbolic religious cities (Mecca and Medina) (House 2007, p. 1). Abdulaziz Alsaud founded the modern Saudi Arabian kingdom in 1932. The Kingdom forms the largest country in the Arab peninsula because it covers about 2,149,690 square kilometres (CDSI 2012). According to 2012 statistics from the Saudi Arabian Central Department of Statistics & Information, Saudi Arabia has a population of about 29.1 million (CDSI 2012) About 48.6% of this population is 24 years, or below (CDSI 2012). The inhabitants of Saudi Arabia mainly speak Arabic.

Since Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam, religious laws form the main rules that govern the country’s social, political, and economic sectors. For purposes of self-preservation, Saudi Arabia’s basic law of government stems from the Quran. The country’s basic law of government also borrows from the teachings of Prophet Hadith. Prophet Hadith’s teachings similarly stem from similar teachings made by Prophet Muhammad (Poulson 2003).

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The social and political environment of Saudi Arabia is closed and strict. Complex traditions, customs, and religion inform this strict environment. The intertwined nature of the traditions, customs, and religion of Saudi Arabia explain why it is difficult to separate social and religious issues in the country. Religion in Saudi Arabia defines gender roles in the Kingdom. For a long time, there have been many misconceptions regarding the role of religion in preventing Saudi women from assuming their gender roles in education (as conceived in the western philosophical understanding of women empowerment) (AlMunajjed 1997, p. 107).

The evidence provided in this essay demonstrates that even though there may be misconceptions about Saudi Arabia’s social and cultural composition, Islam does not forbid women from learning. Certainly, this paper demonstrates that Islam acknowledges the distinction between male and female gender roles. In this regard, Islam provides women with equal rights, as their male counterparts, but rarely does it provide women with identical rights as men (especially concerning legal, social, political rights) (Human Rights Watch 2008). Instead, the religion encourages gender equality in education. Therefore, the main challenge that prevents women from participating in the country’s nation-building activities do not stem from Islam, but rather, from the strong inclination to the country’s traditional way of life (Herscovitch 2007).

Saudi Arabia’s Religion, Tradition, and Society

Saudi Arabia’s religion, tradition, and society define the country’s culture. Schalkwyk, (2000) says culture is the beliefs and practices of a society. An understanding of cultural significance in the society is especially important to the Saudi Arabian context because culture closely intertwines with the country’s tradition and religion (Wiseman 2008). Islam is the main religion of Saudi Arabia. In fact, the state largely considers itself a Muslim state (Achoui 2009). The main Islamic movement of Saudi Arabia is Sunni-dominated because about 15% of Saudi Arabians are Shia’ Muslims (Elamin 2010). Aryeea (1999) says religion shapes a society’s culture and culture shapes how people do things in the society.

In the gender context, family pressure, characterized by religious and cultural attributes, defines women’s roles in Saudi Arabia (Doumato 1999). These attributes require Saudi women to fulfil their gender roles in the homestead by being outstanding homemakers and mothers (Metcalfe 2008). The main responsibility of the man is to protect and provide for the family. Social norms and conservative religious beliefs play a pivotal role in defining the roles of Saudi women (Zaman 1988). For example, because of conservative religious beliefs and practices, the Saudi government only issues identification cards for women who have a male companion (Idris 2007). Similarly, religious beliefs and practices outline people’s dressing (Zimmer 1975). For example, women are supposed to wear the abaya as a sign of compliance to the Islamic laws of modesty (Al Rawaf 1990; Al Rawaf 1991). Therefore, Saudi Arabia’s social structure bears a lot of importance to religion and conservative societal ideals. These issues influence the culture of the society (Schlaffer 2011).

Women in Saudi Arabia

Islam largely defines the rights of women in Saudi Arabia (Calvert & Shetaiwi 2002). Historians say the separation of women and men in Saudi Arabia characterises the country’s social and political history (Almutairi 2008). Indeed, only until recently, the government did not allow women in Saudi Arabia to run for high political office (or to vote) (Teferra 2004). Some researchers have documented the existence of several provisions of Saudi law that require women to have a male guardian to undertake many duties like travelling or even starting a business (Abdulrahman 2011). However, in 2008, the World economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia as among the most improved countries in offering economic opportunities for women (Martin 2010). Nonetheless, stemming from Saudi Arabia’s background of limited economic opportunities for women, western analysts have criticised Saudi Arabia for disenfranchising their women (Subbarao 1995).

However, a growing school of thought proposes the view that most of these western critics do not understand the unique dynamics of Saudi Arabia (Alsaeid 2011). One notable aspect of this debate stems from the view that some Saudi Arabian women do not demand change (Renard 2008). Instead, most of these women only want to follow Islamic teachings (Prokop 2003). Therefore, some proponents of these opinions say that some western critics of Saudi Arabia criticise what they know little about (AlMunajjed 2009).

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Nonetheless, in the past few years, there has been a dramatic shift in the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia (Roy 1992). Mostly, these changes are progressive to allow more involvement of women on the political front (Lincove 2008). Certainly, a recent political change in Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council affirms the changing nature of Saudi Arabia’s politics because for the first time in the country’s history, the government offered Saudi Arabian women a chance to participate in public life (BBC 2013, p. 1). The role of the Shura Council is to advise the government on how to tackle policy agendas. Alongside these reforms, the government also opened new opportunities for women to vie for elective positions in the upcoming 2015 municipal elections (Hall 2013, p. 2). The government will also allow women to vote in these elections.

Another area that has received significant reform is the education sector (Al-Hariri 1987). Contrary to some beliefs, the Islamic faith does not promote the lack of education among Islamic women (Hamdan 2005). Even though the Saudi government requires educational curricula to align with Islamic doctrines, it encourages women to have the same educational empowerment as men (Baki 2004). Evidence of this equality features in past reports from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation, which say about 79% of Saudi Arabian women are literate (UNESCO 2012).

Education System in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Arabian education system has undergone significant transformation (AlMunajjed 1997). Notably, the education system is now more inclusive than it was when the kingdom started (Trial 1950). Currently, there are 24 public universities and about eight private universities (the number of colleges and other institutions of higher learning exceed 24,000) (UNESCO 2012). The government intends to construct more institutions of higher education (Alkahtani 2012). About 5,000,000 students study in Saudi schools and universities (Metcalfe 2008). About half of this student population is girls (Rugh 2002). The first public schools for girls were nonexistent before the early 1960s. After the 1960s, the Saudi government started a girl-centred education system that offers free education to girls throughout all levels of learning (the Saudi Arabian education system is segregated) (Caesar 1984).

The Saudi Arabian education system has received some criticism for failing to provide girls with the right set of skills to compete favourably in the labour market. Indeed, AlMunajjed (2009) says, “the current educational system relies on rote learning and does not sufficiently promote analysis, skills development, problem solving, communication, and creativity” (p. 8). Furthermore, there is a missing link in the provision of quality education for girls in key areas for new knowledge development such as mathematics, science, and technology (AlMunajjed 2009). Consequently, most Saudi women are not fully empowered to compete with their male counterparts in the digital labour market. Nonetheless, it is easy to affirm that every citizen in Saudi Arabia (irrespective of gender) may access educational opportunities at all levels of learning. Albeit, Islam remains at the centre of the Saudi education system, the government provides quality education to all citizens (Al-Ajmi 2003).


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