A Ray of Hope for Saudi Women

Everyone remembers where they were on 9/11. We were parking our car in the office parking lot when the radio announcer said he was seeing a strange plane crash in Manhattan. We are sure that readers remember where they were, too. The hijackers were Muslim, the majority from Saudi Arabia.

Since then, both Islam and Saudi Arabia have been viewed with suspicion, if not malice by people in the west. The emotional impact of that atrocity has never fully healed. It hasn’t helped that, last October, Saudi agents murdered Saudi citizen and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khahsoggi. He was an outspoken critic of the regime. All the evidence points to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordering his murder. The Crown Prince, rather than the King, is now the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.

This is not an unusual move by the Saudi regime. Saudi authorities arrest, convict and imprison peaceful dissidents without cause all the time. They go to jail for nothing more than exercising their right to free expression. Dozens of political prisoners are serving long prison terms. Women and minority groups in Saudi Arabia face systemic discrimination every day.

In some ways, the western perception of the oppressed, submissive Saudi woman is a stereotype. For example, over the centuries, property rights for women under shariah law were more liberal than in the west. Saudi women have gone to university since the 1970s. Today, more young women than men go to university in Saudi Arabia. Tens of thousands of young Saudi women study in western countries.

Saudi women work in most occupations, except those with higher health and safety risks. Saudi Arabia has female journalists and female lawyers. Most Saudi teachers are women. The ancient shariah property rights for women are an incentive to find work. Young Saudi women think of their property rights as a good reason to have an independent income. Last year, the kingdom lifted the anachronism of forbidding women to drive for the first time.

Even so, Saudi Arabia remains a strictly patriarchal society. Despite their qualifications, the working women we mentioned above are the minority. They represent 22% of Saudi women. Culturally, women are still under the guardianship of the men in their lives.. This includes fathers, husbands, brothers or sons, depending on circumstances. Every Saudi woman always has a man watching over her.

We see a ray of hope today, though. Um Al-Qura is an official Saudi publication. It has released new, more progressive government regulations. As of today, any Saudi adult, regardless of gender, can get their own passport. Women no longer need permission from a male guardian to apply for a passport or to travel abroad.

They also no longer need permission from a guardian to work outside the home. These new regulations also let women register births, marriages and deaths. Women can now be the legal guardians of minors. The regulations affirm the right to work. As such, they prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender, age or disability. For Saudi Arabia, these are unusually progressive steps.

The Saudi royal family seems concerned about the country’s reputation as a human rights pariah abroad. Khashoggi’s murder shone a spotlight on their leadership. As the Crown Prince put it, “Saudis don’t want to lose their identity, but we want to be part of the global culture. We want to merge our culture with global identity.” Remembering not to murder his own people might be another positive step toward global acceptance.

Of course, law and culture are not the same thing. Not all Saudis are ready to give up the concept of male guardianship. The kingdom can’t legislate what goes on within families behind closed doors. No doubt, there will be husbands, fathers and even sons who continue to expect to run the lives of the women in their families. Not all women will be prepared to go to court over such private matters. There may be bureaucrats who choose not to fully uphold these new rules, as we saw in the United States with equal marriage laws.

Neither Saudi Arabia, nor Islam nor Saudi women are monoliths. All three groups are internally diverse. We can see progressive Saudis, including men, expressing strong support for these new rules. Hashtags are already popping up on social media like “No guardianship for women’s travel” and “Thank you, Mohammad bin Salman.” When people are willing to make these public statements, it shows that they are no longer controversial. The fact that the Crown Prince himself has spoken means the new rules are here to stay.
It’s hard to know what to make of today’s sudden announcement. We should probably take it at face value and celebrate a victory for women’s rights. Yet, we are also suspicious about the motives behind it. Um Al-Qura released it on a Friday, which is the traditional Muslim day of rest. No doubt this was to keep the announcement quiet.

Mohammad Bin Salman has lost all credibility outside his own country. Even with these new changes, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is abysmal. This is a ray of hope for Saudi women, but we will take it with a grain of salt. We will also continue to track Mohammad bin Salman’s words and actions. He has proven himself to be a brutal, murderous dictator.

It will take much more than cosmetic changes to win our trust.

Learn More:

New York Times
The Conversation
Human Rights Watch

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