FOCUS on Feminism: Saudi Arabia

Isha Ayesha
Staff Writer

Even though our society has progressed to embrace more liberal values, it is appalling to think that in today’s world, women’s oppression still persists to be a universal phenomenon. One such geographical concentration where we can observe a strong dismissal of women’s agency is perhaps Saudi Arabia. 

Saudi Arabia has established a rather notorious image when it comes to women’s rights. Its staunch misogyny and patriarchal norms that are infused into its legal framework have alienated women, even when it comes to basic human rights. 

In Saudi Arabia, women’s oppression is not only systemic, but it is also interpersonal. The problem is, the law works in a way that interpersonal oppression becomes a form of systemic oppression.

According to The New York Times, it was only earlier this year that Saudi Arabia decided to extend the most basic of rights to their women: the right to equal treatment at the workplace. The right to independently obtain official documents from the government, and perhaps most significantly, the right to travel without a male guardian’s permission.

Here we can see how the familial oppression of constantly being dependent upon a male “wali” (an official guardian, typically a relative) was normalized and encouraged by the laws themselves before Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman decided that the country needed to be modernized. 

This victory comes only a year after women earned themselves the right to drive, which was considered historic in itself, as Saudi Arabia used to be the only country in the world where women were banned from driving, reports BBC.

For these women, it is not simply having the freedom to take to the roads on their own or get a government ID without having to depend on the whim of a male guardian; it is a revolution against all these years of being reduced to being supplements to the men of their country. This war, however, has not been without hardships for these activists as many were arbitrarily arrested by the government, and also faced sexual harassment, violence, and torture, as detailed by Amnesty.

The Guardian explains: this systemic capture and torture was meant to signify a greater message the government was trying to affirm in the women’s heads. Liberties are not meant to be fought for or demanded, but to be accepted with gratitude when the authorities decide to hand them out as they wish. 

Women’s rights are not seen as a humanitarian venture here, they are simply a device in pursuance of a more liberal image of Saudi Arabia. Hence the celebration of these reforms should not be attributed to a more “progressive” leadership. Credit is solely deserved by those courageous women who continue to struggle in their battles. But what is most shocking is that most of these reforms have only come into force in this decade. 

As Deutsche Welle summarizes the developments in women’s rights, it was only in 2005 that women earned their right not be forced into marriage and it was the only a decade after that in 2015 that women earned the right to vote and run for office in municipal elections. 

Saudi Arabia also happens to be one of the only (apart from Iran) Muslim-majority country that imposes a legal dress code for women, says The Economist. Women, both local and foreign, must wear an abaya (a loose robe covering the entire body) in public. Locals are also required to wear a Hijab (headscarf) or a Niqab (headscarf which leaves a slit for the eyes only) if not an entire Burqa (A robe that covers the entire body from head to toe and only leaves a mesh for the eyes).

The rhetoric of the government only repeats the same fundament when it comes to women: women are less capable and less smart than men. This narrative often condemns women to be objectified as a commodity between the males of Saudi Arabia, rather than actual human beings. And feminists in Saudi Arabia are well aware of the battle.

When it comes to Saudi Arabia, the interpersonal oppression rules over any legal reforms that could be passed to help women. So, no matter how significant they are, they still persist to be insufficient as long as men still rule the country with the belief that they essentially own the woman.

These are the accomplishments of the various brave women who refused to bend to the continued oppression they were supposed to believe and struggled for years for the basic recognition that most enjoy casually all over the world.

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