Islamic law, also known as Sharia Law has been a vast contributor in the limitations of Saudi women. The basis being that women are not seen as competent beings, nor do they possess an equal mental capacity to that of their male counterparts. Paired with a strict and unforgiving moral code, the requirement of a hijab, as well as the legally required male guardian, and you have the makings of a relatively normal female life in Saudi Arabia. However, the aspect of male guardianship plays a pivotal role in a Saudi woman’s life, as a consistent strong arm that maintains a grip on every factor of their lives. All critical decision making in a woman’s life is orchestrated by her legal guardian. In turn, every Saudi woman is subjected to this practice, regardless of class or status. Typically, a father or in some cases a brother would serve as a guardian from birth until the woman is married. Once a woman marries, her husband would then step into the guardian role until her death or his, with the exception of a son succeeding his father’s place as his mother’s guardian. Women’s rights activists in the country have called for reform several times which the government agreed to- twice. Both in 2009 and 2013, the Saudi government took measly steps to reform guardianship and yet it remains mostly intact to this day.Many Saudi women view this legal obligation as the juggernaut impediment on women’s rights, and the progression of women’s rights in their country; effectively rendering their rights to the equivalency of minors. Guardian consent is required for various commonalities that we may take for granted in our country. Things such as applying for a job, healthcare, or even attempting to rent an apartment. Some guardians utilize this dependent relationship as a means of extortion from women, parlaying her rights by allowing them to pursue getting a job or making a career for themselves for their own personal monetary gain. Interestingly enough, according to a 2015 Fortune article, the number of women in the workforce in Saudi Arabia increased by a staggering 48 percent from previous numbers in 2010. This seemingly impressive female presence in the Saudi workforce can be attributed to limited gender reforms implemented by the late Saudi King Abdulaziz. Jobs in retail and hospitality were then made available to women as well as the first female Saudi lawyers were allowed to practice in 2013. Still, there is a long way to go, since female employees in total only make up 16 percent of the Saudi workforce. In 2009 King Abdulaziz also appointed the first female government minister who was given the title of deputy education minister for women’s affairs. Shortly following, in 2015 women were then allowed to both run for office and vote which stood for a significantly symbolic victory for women. The increasing female presence in both politics and the workforce is a step in the right direction however there is still much strife.
Even with all of that progress, women are still faced with unfair socio-cultural factors. Take into consideration that in 2005, Saudi Arabia banned forced marriages, however marriage contracts and arrangements are still being conducted through a woman’s legal guardian and her potential spouse- obviously without her say. It was only as recently as May of this year that the deeply Islamic country prepared to outlaw sexual harassment and shortly thereafter, allowed for women to legally drive which was a widely hailed victory; as well as allowing women into concerts and sports stadiums with men. These breakthroughs are not to be confused, since rules governing a woman’s behavior are still legally in place such as needing a male to accompany women in public and also a limit on the amount of time a woman can spend with a male stranger.
Violence against women still flourishes as the systematic reign of guardianship transferring from fathers to husbands paired with unequal laws regarding divorce proceedings makes it nearly impossible for any woman to escape the cycle of abuse. The legal system is both deeply flawed and entrenched in blatant discrimination against women’s rights. Nevertheless, Saudi women are torn between feeling hopeful for the potential paradigm shift in social customs and being afraid or made targets with their newfound allowance to drive as well as socially integrate with men in public. Women who protest for greater freedoms are subjected to death threats as well as potential imprisonment. Ironically enough, the guardianship system also controls imprisonment in the sense that a woman would need her guardian’s permission before being allowed out of jail. Having a voice as a Saudi woman is not a reality. In a stark contrast, traditional Saudi women feel that the newly burgeoning freedoms are ill conceived and solely influenced from western culture.
Changes in the structure of education have been made as well. According to Bloomberg reports, Saudi universities have extended the available curriculum to their female students with areas of study such as law and architecture newly available. Thus, this is providing educational advancements working towards being on par with education available to men…though not equivalent just yet. Stunningly, women still accounted for half of all Saudi graduates last year as well as several thousand female Saudis studying abroad. More than half of these students choose to do their studies in the United States, gracing both private and public universities with hope and ambition. Yet despite the impressiveness of the increased amount of scholarly Saudi females, educating women in their country is still a relatively new phenomenon. Less than 50 years ago did the literacy rates for females dwindle at a pitiful 2 percent. Now, this couldn’t be any further from the case, considering that the literacy rate is now a 91 percent for females and 97 percent for males.