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Women in Saudi Arabia — slow, positive changes?

Saudi women in Red Sea city Jeddah, many now with advanced college degrees, are demanding change.

Saudi women, many now with advanced college degrees, are demanding change.

Many have inquired

A number of people have asked me about women in Saudi Arabia. Society here is known to be one of the most gender-segregated in the world. So one might be taken aghast at the recent unofficial revelation that women, under certain circumstances, may now ride bikes!

The Al Yaum daily recently cited an unnamed official from the state’s religious police as saying women can now ride bikes in parks and recreational areas, but they have to be accompanied by a male relative and dressed in the full Islamic head-to-toe abaya. The article states that women may not use the bikes for transportation but “only for entertainment” and that they should shun places where young men gather “to avoid harassment”!

However, today, even this modest sign of progress may have been an illusion. The pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat spoke to the country’s religious police chief who called the matter “funny,” adding that because riding bikes is uncommon in Saudi society, officials never considered the practice as something to either be banned or allowed for women.

Saudi Arabia follows an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam and bans women from driving cars and trucks. Some religious leaders have assured me that these gender-segregation laws are in place to protect Saudi women from modern-day decadence and from being subjugated to incessant male sexual harassment; however, others disagree.

The King Khalid Foundation is now running ads in Saudi newspapers and on TV about spousal abuse.

The King Khalid Foundation is now running ads in Saudi newspapers and on TV about spousal abuse.

Domestic violence

All Saudi women, regardless of age, are “guarded” by a male (father, brother, or husband). Not surprisingly, most domestic abuse goes unreported.

In 2008, the Saudi prime minister ordered the expansion of “social protection units” in large cities. These are Saudi Arabia’s version of women’s shelters. Also that year, the prime minister ordered the government to draft a national strategy to deal with domestic violence.

Some Saudi royal foundations, such as the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue and the King Khalid Foundation, organized education and awareness campaigns against domestic violence.

A first-ever ad dealing with domestic violence is now being run in newspapers and on TV, and it’s making waves. According to the King Khalid Foundation, female abuse is often a “phenomenon cloaked in the darkness of shame”; especially true  in a nation dominated by males.

Dr. Isobel Coleman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York.

Dr. Isobel Coleman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York.

Major issue of women’s rights

Dr. Isobel Coleman, noted women’s advocate and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is promoting her new book Paradise Beneath Her Feet.

The author asserts that the pace of change for women in the Arab world and, in particular, Saudi Arabia, is slowly changing. Coleman says she’s under no illusion about the nature of the challenges facing Arab women, “It’s going to be one step forward, one step back in some cases. It’s just not going to be a straight line change for women.”

But of all of the Islamic countries one might observe, Coleman says, perhaps the progress of women in Saudi Arabia has been the most consistent and the most clear cut. “You just have progress after progress there compared to other countries where you have seen progress and set backs.”

Coleman pointed out that change was the “new Saudi normal,” especially for young people, who are being educated by the hundreds of thousands in western colleges and universities.

She says it’s important to remember that Saudi Arabia has a very young population. “There’s a massive youth bulge coming through the system,” she points out. “The largest cohort in terms of population in Saudi Arabia is in the age group between 10 and 16. This youth bulge is growing up in a world where they now see that women can be on the Shura Council. They see women having more prominent positions in society.” Coleman says this is going to change the way people think.

So even though there are only incremental changes in Saudi Arabia in respect to women’s rights–slow changes that are very disappointing to many people, she says these things will progress more quickly for women as this younger generation grows up in a different environment.

Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques is the deeply respected King of Saudi Arabia

His Majesty Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, is the deeply respected King of Saudi Arabia

Women appointed to council

Most recently, King Abdullah signaled an easing of its practices of sexual segregation by appointing women to the country’s senior representative state body for the first time.

The Shura Council, which advises the government on legislation, the king says, should have 20 per cent female membership, meaning 30 women will sit on the 150-person council.

In a sign that the change is modest, the decrees require female members to be “committed to Islamic shariah disciplines without any violations” and be “restrained by the religious veil”–a partition that has been installed in the council’s building in the capital city Riyadh.

The building is now being altered to install a screen to keep male and female members apart along with a new communications system to enable them to talk to each other without being in direct eye contact.

Enter a princess–Princess Ameera

Saudi activist poster.

Saudi activist poster.

For many in the country, these very slow “step by step” changes are not enough.

In 2011, Princess Ameera Al-Taweel sounded a battle cry of sorts when she spoke at a special session of the Clinton Global Initiative titled “Voices for Change in the Middle East & North Africa,” in which she discussed her views on the current movements for change in the region with President Clinton.

The Princess has since frequently appeared as a featured guest on US radio and TV, having appeared on NBC’s Today, CNN, and NPR. She has also been interviewd by Time and Forbes magazines where she has strongly supported both a woman’s right to drive. She has also been an activist supporting the overall empowerment of women to head businesses and provide government leadership in a future in a more progressive Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

However, the power of conservative religious teaching should not be under-estimated in this the Holy Land of all Muslims around the world.

Saudi women, as a whole, do appear to be making significant progress as they campaign for a future that will bring them more freedom and greater respect and increased opportunities.

Below is an interview with Saudi Princess Ameera in which she speaks openly about here future hopes for all Saudi women:

Sources: CNN, BBC, The Telegraph, Arab News, Al Jazeerah News, Wikipedia, Saudi Gazette, Clinton Global Initiative, Council on Foreign Relations, Al Yawm, The King Khalid Foundation

April 6, 2013 - Posted by | Human Rights | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. They ought to try to control the men who harass the women, not the women themselves.


    Comment by Pat Schenck | April 6, 2013 | Reply

  2. Yes! Wouldn’t you think! A few Lorena Bobbits over here would take care of things!

    Comment by Sam Shropshire | April 6, 2013 | Reply

  3. Let women drive. Don’t force non-saudi to wear abaya in Jeddah and Dammam.

    Comment by J | May 25, 2013 | Reply

    • Hopefully women will be permitted to drive soon! It will be a long time before women of any nationality will be able to go without abayas.

      Comment by Sam Shropshire | June 25, 2013 | Reply

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