The foundation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is strongly built on the Islamic doctrine. The Basic Law, which abides by the teachings of Prophet Muhammad as stated in the Holy Quran, entitles the power of leadership to male descendants of the founder King Abdullaziz bin Abdulrahman Al Saud. From a human rights point of view, this law does not guarantee gender equality to the Saudi women.
Seemingly, Saudi politicians have always based their arguments on the Islamic dogmas to evade the emerging pressure from the Saudi women to have their political share. However, controversy arises when the state-funded religious scholars (the ulema) fail to support women. Indeed, majority of the religious scholars and Islamic leaders regard the Basic Law as nondiscriminatory since it follows the Islamic Law (Sharia). However, some of the scholars have remained on the forefront to challenge the Basic Law in an attempt to eliminate the parity that exists between men and women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Basic Law has imposed numerous restrictions that deny the Saudi women the right to vote, work, drive, and acquire education. These restrictions have raised national debates to fight for the civil rights for Saudi women. This essay provides an overview of the women rights problem that faces Saudi women.
Women’s Position in Saudi Arabian Society
The position of women in the Sunni Muslim society is a controversial issue that raises unending debates about the rights of women. The controversy lies within a cross-cultural nation that is strongly founded on the teachings of the Holy Quran and Saudi Arabian traditions that overemphasize the Islamic doctrines (Cummings and Held 101). Saudi Arabian women face numerous gender-based restrictions that deny them independence and self-fulfillment.
The Islamic religion has a profound influence on the socio-economic and political aspects of the Saudi Arabians. This situation has significantly affected the way Arabians live, especially for the Saudi women who face distinguished inequitable effects (Mtango 49).
The author reveals that Article 8 of the Basic Law clearly outlines that the government should build on the Sharia that advocates fairness. Nonetheless, many Arabian women and men have attempted to challenge the Muslim conservatives who practice the Sharia laws in a traditional context rather than in a religious framework. Hamdan reveals that numerous Saudi activists have based claims on a variety of reasons that explain how the Saudi laws have had significant implications for the Saudi society (221). The activities of many women depend on the permission that is granted to them by male guardians, preferably the closest male relatives (the mahram), irrespective of their spousal status or age. Precisely, the basic law restricts Saudi women with reference to education, health, work, right to vote, and full representation in court (Butters 45).
The Islamic culture and the traditional aspects of the Saudi Arabian society have weakened the powers of women to participate in the formulation of political decisions. Consequently, the ultimate life of a woman in the Kingdom of Arabia hinges on the authority of men. The culture of the Saudi society enforces separation between men and women in public. This situation hampers Saudi women from opportunities that range from education and career development, employment, movement, and socialization to business among other opportunities (Sivakumar and Sarkar 29).
Marriage and the Health of Saudi Women
The practice of marriage in Saudi Arabia is the responsibility of the mahram. An unmarried woman is answerable to her father. Married women are answerable to their husbands, whereas widows are answerable to their sons for matters that pertain to marriage. The Saudi women, both aged and young, have very little influence on their marriage. The marriage laws have not specified any minimum age that a Saudi woman should marry (Mtango 51).
In addition, the Basic Law still allows underage marriage. The author reveals how the Saudi government passed a bill that supported the marriage of girls aged below 16 years if the girl’s guardian acquires a relinquishment from a court of law, a health report, and authorization from the mother of the child. The contract of marriage is agreed between the mahram and the prospected husband. Neither the girl nor the mother has influence on the marriage. Furthermore, marriage that occurs between a Saudi and a non-Saudi citizen requires an approval from the Interior Ministry. However, this ministry approves such applications faster for men than for women (Mtango 52).
Moreover, the Saudi law permits inheritance of wives. This fact is more of a tradition than the religion itself. Inheritance of wives or marriage of wives to close relatives has led to cases of inherited diseases amongst the Saudi people. Mobaraki and Söderfeldt reveal a family case where 3.5 percent of an extended family had a condition known as the beta-thalassaemia (118).
The Sharia laws, which are upheld in Saudi Arabia support enforced polygamous marriage. Forced polygamy is contrary to the teaching of the Islamic religion. The Holy Quran accentuates that a man can marry a maximum of four wives if he has enough wealth to provide for the women. Islamic teachings make it clear that polygamy is not obligatory. Rather, it is a man’s choice (Butters 47). Although the Islamic law expects a man to provide the basic and other indispensable needs for women, research carried out by Mobaraki and Söderfeldt revealed that polygamous marriages have affected the mental abilities of many Saudi women (117).
As a result, they suffer psychosomatic problems that have severe implications on family life. These family conditions have profound effects on the upbringing of children. The authors unveil that children from polygamous families succumb to poor relationships with other learners and teachers more often in relation to children whose family background is monogamous. Furthermore, the marriage of underage girls has led to negative physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual implications for young girls. The practice of marrying young girls before they attain their maturity is a violation of basic human rights as the law deprives them of the sole decision to judge their own marriage time.
Despite the advocacy for knowledge in the Islamic religion, the Sharia in Saudi Arabia has limited Saudi women from harnessing their abilities in education over the years (Cummings and Held 119). However, during the regime of the current King Abdullah bin
Abdulaziz Al Saud, the government has shown significant efforts to improve access to education for Saudi girls and women. The emerging need for equity and placement of females in the labor market has compelled King Abdullah’s government to increase the enrolment of girls in schools. As a result, the increasing quest to educate women has led to the establishment of more educational facilities to accommodate the rising number of girls. This case has seen the country undergo gradual educational restructurings in a variety of aspects such as infrastructural changes, recruitment of new teachers, and revision of the Saudi curriculum for education. Nevertheless, a noteworthy incongruity is evident between the specific skills provided to the girls and the actual skills that are required in the labor market (Hamdan 46).
Inadequacy of such skills has led to an increasing unemployment rate amongst women. Furthermore, the education program for girl schools is not comprehensive as the one deployed in the boy’s schools. This situation makes them unsuitable for competitive job markets. Consequently, there is little participation of the female workforce in the labor market labor.
Actually, the Saudi Arabian society exhibits peculiarity in its social sphere of life. Women are highly secluded from the public and social environments. Nevertheless, the Saudi government has attempted to change the educational life of Saudi women for the last four decades. Hamdani reveals that King Abdullah’s government has championed for universal education for girls and boys (43).
The numbers of schools have increased considerably with more girls enrolling in both the middle schools and university colleges. Researchers from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) have revealed that the Saudi government has accomplished a significant goal of advocacy for women education in the republic. Nevertheless, the curriculum for girls omits important dimensions of education such as sports due to the country’s norm of excluding females from the public arena (Hamdani 203). The author reveals that failure to incorporate physical education in female schools has led to obesity among young Saudi girls.
Comparative data that was collected by Mobaraki and Söderfeld indicated a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 45-percent for Saudi women aged between 34 and 68 years against a BMI of 25.6 percent for the Saudi males (116). In addition, the authors attest that the education program for women does not provide opportunities for law, journalism, and engineering among other related courses. As a result, Saudi women rarely contribute to the social development of the republic.
There is no such a thing like ‘freedom of movement’ for Saudi women. The Saudi law restricts the movement of women, except for a few cases where a woman needs to seek the company of her guardian. A woman in Saudi Arabian context cannot move around or travel freely without the presence or the knowledge of man. Where a woman has an irresistible need to travel, she has to seek permission from the mahran prior to the travel (Mtango 46). Unrelenting needs to move around the country for personal needs have forced some women to seek the companies of unknown men to carry out their activities. The Saudi law deems such a practice illegal and breach of the marriage laws. The fact that there is a restriction of women movement in Saudi Arabia limits access to the nation’s diverse resources.
Sivakumar and Sarkar reveal that the Saudi government does not allow women to drive owing to a number of religious and traditional myths that govern the Saudi society (30). Although restriction is not documented, there is no issuance of driving licenses to women, even within the boundaries of the country. The fact that there is a need for a woman to uncover her face while driving is a factor that reinforces their ban to driving. Secondly, Saudi Arabian women stay indoors most of the times. Driving may necessitate often movements from the house. Thirdly, Muslim conservatives proclaim that driving may trigger interaction with non–mahram men at inconveniencing situations such as vehicle breakdowns or traffic accidents. In the Saudi society, it is a taboo for women to interact with unrelated men.
Moreover, claims have it that the involvement of women on the road can lead to traffic congestion that might obstruct young men from driving. In fact, traffic researchers have proven that some male drivers are far worse than their female counterparts are. Lastly, conservatives assert that women driving might not respect some profound cultural values such as women isolation from men (Butters 44). In addition to the driving ban, there is undocumented Saudi Arabian philosophy that hampers women from using public means of transport. Conventionalists claim that the public transportation exposes women to non-mahran males. Therefore, they require women to adopt the use of cabs and personal drivers, preferably from the mahran to abide by the traditions of the Saudi society. These chauvinistic laws deprive women of their right to movement (Butters 47).
The issue of addressing the need for women rights in Saudi Arabian context remains a controversy among many researchers, policymakers, and human rights activists. There is an overemphasis of the Islamic religion through the Saudi laws, which violate the conventional Islamic Sharia among Islamic communities. It might sound an enforcement of falsehood to say that Saudi women enjoy any benefits from the Saudi governance that places them in a darkened life context.
The regime of King Abdullah has really championed for the rights of women albeit under some restrictions. Despite such progress, the republic’s human rights activists still have hard tasks ahead to challenge the government to waive some of the restrictions on matters such as education, driving, travel, marriage, voting, and representation in court matters among other limitations. The strength of any Saudi woman will depend on the nation’s respect for her rights as a human being who has needs, priorities, and cognitive abilities to fashion a significant life.
Butters, Andrew. “Saudi’s Small Steps.” Time 174.15(2009): 44-7. Print.
Cummings, John, and Colbert Held. Middle East Patterns: Places, People, and Politics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2013. Print.
Hamdan, Amani. “Women and education in Saudi Arabia: Challenges and achievements.” International Education Journal 6.1(2005): 42-64. Print.
Hamdan, Amani. “The Role of Authentic Islam: The Way Forward for Women in Saudi Arabia.” Hawwa 10.3(2012): 200-220. Print.
Mobaraki, Edgar, and Binsmack Söderfeldt. “Gender inequity in Saudi Arabia and its role in public Health.” Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal 16.1(2010): 113-18. Print.
Mtango, Sifa. “A state of oppression? Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.” Asia-Pacific Journal on Human Rights & the Law 5.1(2004): 49-67. Print.
Sivakumar, Abirami, and Siddhartha Sarkar. “Women Entrepreneurs in Small and Medium Scale Businesses in Saudi Arabia.” International Journal of Finance & Policy Analysis 4.1(2012): 25-32. Print.