Rated 134th of 145 countries for gender equality by the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Gender Gap Report, Saudi Arabia is infamous for (amongst other things) its oppressive and restrictive policies towards women. Perhaps the most significant of these is the guardianship policy under which Saudi women live. Based upon an interpretation of Islamic law – but unparalleled in other Muslim-dominated countries – the policy requires that every Saudi woman have a legally recognised male guardian (typically a father or a husband), who must give permission for them to partake in aspects of public life including travel, marriage, some healthcare and education.
Saudi women’s rights activism began in the 1960s, but did not gain widespread recognition until 1990 when 47 women staged a campaign against the driving ban. In the years since, progress has been relatively slow – though accelerated somewhat recently by the growth of social media. Last month, almost 15,000 people signed a petition (circulated on Twitter) calling for the end of guardianship, which was delivered to the Saudi King, Salman, on 26th September. The campaign (#IAmMyOwnGuardian) gained the support of women of a wide range of ages and backgrounds and attracted international attention, with First Lady Michelle Obama publicly drawing attention to the ‘unthinkable obstacles’ faced by Saudi girls, in a speech last week.
The petition has received a mixed response from religious figures, with many deploring it as a ‘crime against Islam’ whilst others condemn the guardianship policy itself as a misinterpretation of Islam. The King himself is yet to issue a response. The desired outcome, a royal decree ending the policy, would be an enormous step forward for Saudi women’s freedoms. However, even this would be no instant panacea for a nation in which notions of female inferiority and the importance of gender segregation are so deeply entrenched. Almost all public institutions are segregated, and women are still effectively forbidden from driving and legally required to adhere to a strict dress code preserving their ‘modesty’.
Furthermore, while many women do resent some or all of these policies, there are also many who not only accept but actively campaign for their continuation. We may talk of ‘women’s liberation’, as if Saudi women are one homogeneous, oppressed entity, but the inconvenient truth of the matter is that many have no desire to be ‘liberated’. Many more conservative women view gender segregation and restrictions as essential protections, whilst perceiving liberal activist efforts as a threat to their country’s status as ‘the closest thing to a pure and ideal Islamic nation’. In 2008 over 5,000 Saudi women signed a petition defending the guardianship policy, emphasising the centrality of love, stability and security, and criticising the one-sided view of visiting human rights groups.
Even more inconveniently, these women are not the meek, mild and submissive housewives one might expect; they are often accomplished and articulate professors, scientists and writers. They do not view themselves as fighting against women’s rights, but as against the ‘intellectual colonisation’ of the Western world. While this does not, as far as I am concerned, detract from the importance of lifting limitations on the lives of those women who do wish to live outside of the guardianship system (or do anything else deemed inappropriate for their gender), it does highlight the complexity of the issue, and the dangers of imposing Western viewpoints onto other cultures.
Regardless of the many complexities and barriers to change, change is necessary – and things have been changing, however incrementally. Saudi Arabia did institute reforms to the guardianship policy in both 2009 and 2013, including criminalising domestic abuse and dropping the requirement for women to seek their guardian’s permission for employment. Women have also been appointed to the Royal Advisory Council since 2011, and voted and ran in municipal elections for the first time last year. Though still only comprising 16% of the total workforce, the number of women employed increased by 48% between 2010 and 2015, and women actually outnumber men in higher education at present. With this in mind, the anti-guardianship petition stressed the illogicality of limiting women’s social and economic contributions, essentially wasting the potential of many who could otherwise have aided the country’s growth.
All of these changes, however limited in impact, do paint a slightly more hopeful picture of the future of Saudi Arabia. Society may not become desegregated overnight, but gradual change is underway and tensions and awareness are rising. A royal decree could indeed be the quickest way to enact real change – as argued by Hala Al-Dosari, the woman behind the petition, who writes in The Guardian of how past reforms enacted through decree passed with little societal backlash. This may, at this point, be ambitious – but even if the petition does not have an instant influence at governmental level, the mere fact that it has gained so much attention, across different classes and across the world, can surely only be a positive sign.