Saudi Arabia follows the apartheid system in its treatment of women. The apartheid system resembles that of South African treatment of nonwhites in many ways. Gender-based apartheid speaks of disproportionateness in trivial and fundamental things such as education, legal rights, unequal rights to property and jobs and restrictions imposed on freedom movements by women. However the stereotype notions that claim Islamic women are uneducated and hold absolutely no rights are exaggerated verdicts propagated out of ignorance by the West. Ergo, one can’t rule out the fact that women in Saudi Arabia encounter obstacles in proving who they are and are mostly considered as sub-ordinates to their men. They are named as “dependents” on their male guardian cards (Jensen, 2005).
Women are allowed to have their identity cards with their respective photographs but this is possible only when she hits twenty-two and is expected to present the written consent of her guardian along with her employer’s consent if she is working under him. This liberty allocated to women did meet criticism by the Conservatism in various factions of the Arabian society. Similarly various resolutions calling for more employment opportunities and active involvement of women in politics have come across fierce resistance by different other segments of the society. The male segment of the society has been more pronounced in voicing out their disapproval of such liberties granted to women henceforth. Other institutes include labor ministry, religious police etc. Such influences have made women’s development in Arab countries a snail-paced phenomenon. Various factions of the society argue and point out that as per Shariah women should stay at home and be thoroughly involved in nurturing and taking care of the family. Women hence have been subjected to segregated restrictions in this country both in the cultural as well religious contexts. It should be noted that women in Saudi Arabia have not been sanctioned from seeking employment. They can be employed but the law states that they can’t work in a mixed-sex place. Thus sex segregation has a major role to play in Saudi culture. It goes unsaid that all forms of public interaction such as offices, colleges, schools, universities and libraries continue being segregated. The Mutawa, the local religious police plays an active role in ensuring that most segregation laws are properly abided by by both men and women. Due to such laws curbing women’s freedom of dress, entertainment, etc, separate restaurants for women eventually followed in 2003, the idea being to allow women to have their space while remaining unexposed to men. However family restaurants are often sighted albeit with relevant facilities provided to keep women concealed. Even then one can’t deny that visiting family restaurants by women is still an alien concept in Saudi culture. Even western companies operating there such as the likes of Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Star bucks, KFC etcetera have to follow the laws of segregation enforced by the authorities. Women entering these places without their male beaus are not allowed to enter and be sent back (impish, 2002).
On the medical end, Saudi women cannot be treated and checked by male doctors if there is a female specialist available. The law does not vehemently deny women from being treated by men, however. The vice versa is not allowed. Women under no circumstances can treat men. Since Saudi women can’t travel without a close male relative by their side, public transport remains largely restricted to men there. Their culture imposes limitless restrictions on women’s freedom to move around in society. Driving cars is deemed haram by the religious authorities there on various grounds some of them being: whilst driving it would be necessary for women to stay unveiled and uncovered, something which is a strict no-no in the Saudi culture; driving would call on more trips of women outside their house and ultimately more interaction with na-mahram males such as traffic policemen on violation of traffic rules. Moreover, it is believed that women driving the cars would lead to dense more populous traffic which will eventually deprive the young men of the opportunity to drive around. Women’s mobility has been obstructed in various other genres in society. They are not allowed to ride on bicycles and motorbikes, to drive alone in a car and as will be discussed in the succeeding paras, they can only travel in segregated bus services.
- Riyadh is the only city where women enjoy the freedom of travelling in buses and taxis. The buses in Riyadh are fully segregated with separate doors of entrance for women. Sex-segregation remains firmly embedded in the society where even banks have not been spared. Women are allowed to open their bank accounts only at the behest of their husbands while only female auditors can examine women’s accounts. (Saudi Women Barred from voting, 2004)
- A woman who leaves her house for work is bound to meet and follow certain rules some of which are; the woman should pursue work only to muster up the money she needs to survive gracefully; the workplace should be completely segregated and there shouldn’t be any kind of interaction with “na-mahram” men none whatsoever; the kind of work taken up should be coherent to a woman’s physical and mental stature and should in no way obstruct her domestic life and obligations; Until and unless the husband has given his consent, women cannot proceed with their work and neither are they allowed to travel to far off places without the company of a close male relative. Irrespective, women cannot be delegated to the high profile positions in public offices and neither can they be appointed as judges in this country. (Salih)
- As far as their clothing is concerned women of Saudi Arabia are bound with the obligation of wearing hijab and are called upon to cover their bodies with a black cloak popular known as the abaya. The niqab of face veil is also mandatory to cover their faces, failing to do which may lead to public harassment by the religious police in the country. Women in this country were not allowed to vote in the municipal elections that took place in 2005 and continue to bear the brunt of this ban. They are still not allowed to women. On the legal end too, women continue facing discrimination. They are not allowed to testify and even if they are then it has to be a personal matter where men could not be seen. A woman’s testimony has been dismissed on various grounds in Saudi Arabia, and is treated as a presumption than a fact. The authorities claim that the women tend to be more emotional compared to men which may impact the facts and distort the truth sought for; due to women’s limited role in public life they bear little of no understanding of what they witness and foresee; as women continue to be subdued by men who are the superior sex as proclaimed by God, women can only testify as per what the last men relayed to them. These laws have unfortunately had an adverse affect on the society and men have been able to scot free after coming barbaric crimes such as assault and rape because women’s testimony will be treated as a presumption and that of the criminal a fact. The opposite has happened in some case where in instead of the man being punished, the victim is for being alone with “na-mahram” males. Such is the state of women in Saudi Arabia in today’s time and age. As far as their domestic life is concerned, in most Saudi homes, men and women have separate entrances. In this culture, women cannot meet her fiancé before the wedding, nor are they allowed to talk to them. (Eltahawy, 2007)
- On the education end, Saudi authorities have given their green signal for educational opportunities for women. Traditionally women were refused the rights to official education. This was put to halt when 1948 saw the dawn of the first elementary school for girls. The school is in Mecca and with this followed a number of other institutes opened solely for girls over the next decades. Today there are quite a lot of educational institutes including universities, for girls all over the kingdom. The education never the less continues to be segregated while the exams conducted for both girls and boys are the same. There exist minor differences in the courses followed. Today women makeup seventy percent of all those enrolled in universities in Saudi Arabia. Some women have also obliterated themselves from on-campus education and opted for online courses offered on the internet due to restrictions imposed on their transport. Thanks to the advancement in technology and globalization, video conferencing enables them to listen to lectures conducted by male teachers while not meeting them. The women constitute only five percent in the Saudi workforce, which is apparently the lowest in the world.
- Wherever one peeks a boo into the Saudi Arabia society women clad in black abbayas will be found all over irrespective of their ethnic, cultural and geographical origin. Two decades later, the ubiquitous abaya which was unique to the Saudi women, symbolizes the ultimate victory of the conservative sections of the society over globalization. Today in shopping malls and private schools, their eyes can be seen and gone are the days of shroud abbayas while neatly embroidered silky black gowns have taken over in the upscale Saudi neighborhood. The fate of the public and what it “faces” today tells us the impact of Saudi engagement with the global economy. Today women move more freely in markets, are allowed to meet up in restaurants with their friend circles and can launder around a little more openly compared to what it was around twenty five years ago. The ruling elite have been more than pro-active in opening educational avenues for women and continue to support the society in this regard. Thanks to globalization, women groomed in the Saudi society of today’s time and ages are socially, economically and morally more aware compared to their predecessors and their ancestors (Ambah, 2008).
- Ambah, F. S. (2008). Saudi Women see a brighter road on rights.
- Eltahawy, M. (2007). Punished for being raped. International Herald Tribune.
- impish. (2002). Islam, Women and Saudi Arabian Society. Web.
- Jensen, R. H. (2005). Taking the Gender Apartheid tour of Saudi Arabia.
- Salih, S. M. (n.d.). Condition of Muslim Woman’s Hijab. Web.
- Saudi Women Barred from voting. (2004). Web.