Saudi Arabia, like much of the Middle East, is not known for their forward thinking in regards to women. Females are not just considered the “weaker sex” but are actually viewed as lesser human beings.
Women are not equal to men. They are forbidden many basic rights. It is even an acceptable cultural practice to beat women as needed. These views are hard to accept for many from western countries.
Looking at some of the acts that women are not allowed to do in Saudi Arabia, the picture of Islamic beliefs becomes clearer.
Driving: While there is no actual law forbidding women from driving cars, it is culturally ingrained. There are a few exceptions, emergencies and taking children to school, but as a Saudi journalist says, “”Women should accept simple things.”
Wear clothes or make-up that reveals beauty: Most are familiar with the image of the traditional coverings worn by Islamic women. Most women in the country wear an abaya, a long cloak, and a head scarf. Saudi law does not necessarily require covering the face which some strongly disagree with. Reports say that religious police often harass women anyways for perceived infractions.
Interact with men: This is one of the more blatant examples of being considered inferior. Women must limit the time they spend with unrelated males. Most public buildings have separate entrances including banks and universities. Segregation is also enforced on public transportation, at beaches, and in amusement parks. Criminal charges are the result of violations.
Compete in sports: In 2015, Saudi Arabia proposed holding the Olympic Games, without women. Prince Fahad bin Jalawi al-Saud told reporters, “Our society can be very conservative. It has a hard time accepting that women can compete in sports.”
Saudi women who were actually allowed to compete in the London Olympics were chastised. Many clerics called them prostitutes. They had to be accompanied at all times by a male guardian and their hair had to be covered.
With these examples, it is easy to imagine that progress for women is slow or non-existent in Saudi Arabia. It came as a surprise to many that rumors of changes were swirling around the conservative kingdom.
A female businesswoman from the country told a reporter in an interview; “I made a bet with a male colleague that the ban on women driving would end in the first six months of this year, and he said it would happen in the second half. But now I think it will happen early next year, and apply only to women over 40.”
Even the talk of progress is slow. However, lessening dependence on Saudi oil is forcing the country to consider adjustments. Last year saw the grand unveiling of “Vision 2030.”
The Vision is described as a plan for the future; “It is an ambitious yet achievable blueprint, which expresses our long-term goals and expectations and reflect our country’s strengths and capabilities. All success stories start with a vision, and successful visions are based on strong pillars. The first pillar of our vision is our status as the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds. We recognize that Allah the Almighty has bestowed on our lands a gift more precious than oil.”
One of the reported goals of the program is to increase the participation of women in the workforce. The current number is 22% and the hope is to get to 30%.
Some hope that the advancement will include allowing women some more freedom. The General Entertainment Authority councilman is cautious with his words. “We will definitely provide things for the more open people and we will provide activities and things for the more conservative people.”
There was a similar surge of hope when Saudi Arabia announced the founding of the Qassim Girls Council. That hope was quickly dashed when the released pictures showed the meeting, of 13 men and no women.
Reportedly the woman of the Girls Council were segregated, kept in another room and linked to the meeting via video feed. That is not exactly the progress that people had in mind.
The group was led by Prince Faisal bin Mishal bin Saud, who was very proud.
“In the Qassim region, we look at women as sisters to men, and we feel a responsibility to open up more and more opportunities that will serve the work of women and girls.”
The Council is supposedly chaired by the prince’s wife, Princess Abir bint Salman. She is not in the photograph.
Prince Faisal spoke about Saudi women, claiming they make up half of the country’s population. While that number may be accurate, the respect they are granted is virtually non-existent. Their oppression in the Middle East makes the Women’s Marches in America seem slightly ridiculous.
If the picture of the “Girls Council” is any indication, women in Saudi Arabia should not expect any changes in the near future.