Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Women in Saudi Arabia

Although the majority of countries would agree that the violation of any human right is unjust, Women’s Rights tend to have a long and controversial history globally. Despite claims of male and female equality, the global arena has an extensive patriarchal history; within which women were, and in some cases still are, banned from voting, owning property, working, divorce and other systematic rights. While women’s rights have developed in a number of ways in the West, substantial progress still needs to be made in many parts of the world. Though, significant strides have been made globally to ensure women’s rights, the Middle East remains, in the world’s eyes a violator and opponent of women’s rights. Today, Saudi Arabia in particular is under scrutiny for their treatment of women. Some of the most divisive and hotly debated restrictions on women are prohibition on driving, the requirement of male guardianship, lack of political empowerment and economic opportunity. An exploration of the current status of women in Saudi Arabia demographically in terms of economically and educationally, the status of female rights politically as well as an exploration of the Saudi Arabian religious take on woman’s rights in comparison to the Qur’anic Scripture, will allow a better understanding of the circumstances and factors behind the laws enforced on women as well as the reactions of citizens.

The Female Demographic: Employment and the Economy
The current female population in Saudi Arabia, as determined by the 2011 consensus, is 11, 780804, and a male dominant population of 14,323899 with a small difference of 2,543095 (Central Intelligence Agency, 2011). Similar to population, the gender gap in Saudi Arabia remains relatively small or average in comparison to the rest of the world, with the largest gap in the employment and literacy fields. 54.2% of women in Saudi Arabia are employed in comparison to 76.4% of men, of course in regards to this data it must be mentioned that the median age of the population remains 23 years old for women and 26 years old for men (Central Intelligence Agency, 2011); the importance of this latter piece of data may allow a presumption of the rarity of youth employment. This 22.2% gap could be a result of various factors such as opportunity, cultural priority, economic job availability and industry domination. The major industry of Saudi Arabia remains exportation of petroleum. “The petroleum sector accounts for roughly 75 per cent of budget revenues, 45 per cent of gross domestic product, and 90 per cent of export earnings. Apart from petroleum, the Kingdom’s other natural resources include natural gas, iron ore, gold, and copper” (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, 2011). In 2009, the World Bank ranked the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the 13th most competitive economy worldwide. The major reforms taken to achieve these results include further female integration in the economy as well as more entrepreneurial encouragement reforms underway in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia boasts a difference of ranking number 67th in 2004 to number 13 in a matter of 4.5 years; this difference is attributed to the series of economic reforms that continue to take place to further promote the economy (Reuters, 2009).
The Female Demographic: Education
Of course, in comparison there remains an almost 14% gap in literacy rates of men versus women. With a male literacy rate of 84.7% in contrast to the female rate of 70.8%; here it must be mentioned that there is no new data on literacy rates and thus these numbers exist from the Central Intelligence Agency study conducted in 2003(Central Intelligence Agency, 2003). In 2005, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud took the place of his half-brother King Fahd on the throne upon King Fahd’s death in 2005. Since then, the King has made a series of reforms politically, socially, economically (as stated above) and educationally. The King has made significant progress in the past 6 years, with a focus on all fields. His endeavors to increase female educational opportunities in order to bridge the 14% gap presented in 2003 are as follows “In September 2009, he inaugurated the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a graduate-level research institution and Saudi Arabia’s first co-educational university… In September 2011, King Abdullah opened the 60,000-student Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University, the largest all-female university in the world” (United States Department of State, 2011). Samar Fatany, a female journalist at Arab News, a daily newspaper in Jeddah explains, “The national dialogue that has started, debating issues that were tabooed in the past; scholarship programs that send so many of our students abroad to be also exposed to other cultures. As a result, the educated elite, the intellectuals or the minority of progressive thinkers have a great role to play in order to influence change and allow our young people to be the engines for a better future” (Arrott, 2011).
While the process of reforms for females is not up to par with Western progress, the reforms in multiple fields over the last 6 years are nevertheless a rapid development. Basmah Omair, director of the al Sayeda Khadija bin Khawlid Center at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce says “In recent years, you have seen women take leadership positions like the deputy of the ministry of education and vice mayor of Jeddah… So it's not something [new], but maybe the media is concentrating [on these events] now” (Arrott, 2011).The purpose of the following data is to build a factual picture around the female demographic and current reforms to allow a better understanding of the existing state of women in Saudi Arabia.
Politics: Female Restrictions and their Promised Future
Presently, the main political restrictions women in Saudi Arabia face are their inability to vote or participate in the political arena. Women remained unable to vote through past monarch decisions because of claims of religion and culture. When King Abdullah announced late September last year that women would be allowed to vote and run for office in 2015, much of the Western reaction included production of headlines such as “Saudi Women To Vote Without Male Approval”, “Women not able to Vote and Run for Municipal Elections until 2015”, and “First Step Toward Moving Country into the Modern World Not Nearly Enough”. The King announced in his speech “Because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with sharia, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior ulama (clerics)[1] and others... to involve women in the Shura Council as members, starting from the next term”(Canadian Broadcasting Corporation News, 2011).  
In contrast to Western response, much of Saudi Arabia rejoiced, with women in particular. Fatany exclaimed of the announcement, “It is a very, very positive step,” she said. “It gives us hope [and] really encourages us to work harder for women to assert themselves and to be part of the decision-making process” (Arrott, 2011). The Saudi population recognizes the challenges associated with such a change given cultural and societal values. Nimah Ismail Nawwab, an internationally recognized Saudi poet who writes about Saudi society, said “We have been working for over 20 years toward many things, including the right of women to vote. We expect that the change will take its time because it's not just a political matter, it's a societal matter at the end of the day” (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation News, 2011).  Of course, such a change would require a few years to implement so as to accommodate the cultural and religious beliefs of gender segregation while allowing for female empowerment. While the King continues to enforce a majority of reforms that continue to advance Saudi Arabia positively, most of the population is optimistic and understanding of the effectiveness of the reforms coupled with the culture that society abides by. Like any other nation, changes are able to occur through gradual reformations or circumstances of politics, health, economy or the fast-paced revolutions that have occurred worldwide historically.
Female Oppression: Hijabs, Burqas and Veils
            The most popular topic under Islamic rule and Women’s Rights are the commandments of Hijab. Hijab is the prescribed Islamic lifestyle of a woman conveying modesty by covering her head as well as the rest of her body except for her feet, hands and face[2]. The Hijab has proven to be controversial in most of Europe, spurring the niqab ban in France, the Canadian province of Quebec and possibly the Netherlands who claim that the Hijab is an oppressive garment and a symbol of Women’s Rights violations (Bowen, 2007). Most responses to these bans and claims of oppression resulted in defensive assertions from the Muslim countries, feeling as if the Western notions were intrusions on a lifestyle they do not understand. In Saudi Arabia, Jawhar claimed “[People] lose sight of the bigger issues like jobs and education. That’s the issue of women’s rights, not the meaningless things like passing legislation in France or Quebec to ban the burqa ... like Saudis should modernize and join the 21st century or that Saudi women need to be free of the veil and abaya ... And by freeing Saudi women, the West really means they want us to be just like them, running around in short skirts, nightclubbing and abandoning our religion and culture” (Wagner, 2010). Much like the ban put forth in France, here the Hijab becomes the agent of socialization for gaining the identity of a Saudi Muslim woman
            In Saudi Arabia, women are required to wear and abaya, Hijab and a niqab, the abaya is a loose garment worn on top of clothing; the Hijab in this case refers to the head covering while a niqab refers to the veil. Both abaya and the veil are not Islamic commandments but a method to achieve modesty, the concept of Hijab can also be achieved through a loose shirt and skirt for example. Today, most women leave out Hijab as a part of Women’s Rights. “Time and again, the women I met in Jeddah and Riyadh insisted how women dressed was not the priority, that reform in Saudi Arabia was about other things” (Kendall, 2006). Most Saudi Arabian Women continue to press on that they want to wear the veil and that Hijab is part of their lifestyle, that it is fashionable, comfortable, convenient and makes them feel safe (Kendall, 2006). Ultimately, no matter the defense or offense, the Hijab becomes a garment of choice just like the religion it is prescribed by. To either force a man or a woman to wear or not wear a garment through which he or she expresses his or her freedom and feels secure is another violation of human rights. As a friend explained “You would never ask a Queen to take off her Crown, so why would I take off my Hijab?”.
Female Oppression: Islamic Interpretation and Perspective in Saudi Arabia
            The Western fears of too much Islam are not echoed by most of the Middle East and South Asia. Given the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment it is easy to see why most of the West holds the doctrine of separation of church from state, or in other words religion from law is necessary (Kamguian, 2003). However, the same preconditions do not exist for the majority of the world; various global historical and cultural factors attribute various outcomes and circumstances. As an Islamic country, Saudi Arabia’s legal system is based on Sharia law (Islamic Law). However, because the law is mostly unwritten in terms of detailed, modern political, economic and social procedures, legislatures and conducts; strict interpretations on what would, could or should be done to abide by Islamic beliefs can vary greatly. A journalist who chose not to expose her name asserted that clerics often abuse rights using Islam as a defense but doing so is unjust to the religion, “If the Qur’an does not address the subject, then the clerics will err on the side of caution and make it haram[3]” (Wagner, 2010). Most Saudi women do not see Islam as the obstacle to women’s rights.
In fact, most men and women call for a better use of Qur’an, the Islamic religious scripture in order to enforce Women’s Rights. Islam teaches that men and women are equal before God. It grants women divinely sanctioned inheritance, property, social and marriage rights, including the right to reject the terms of a proposal and to initiate divorce (Public Broadcasting Service, 2002). The outcry on the misuse of religion for political purposes is again reverberated by Kareem Elbayar, a JD/MA international affairs candidate at The George Washington University Law School, and a Middle East/North Africa Specialist at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law; he claims “Many of the Medieval holdings that are now enshrined in Islamic law—especially with regard to women—are outdated and even blatantly incorrect misapplications of the law (in the same way that virtually all Western jurists would now argue that the holding in Dred Scott v. Sandford was incorrect)” (Elbayar, 2010).
In adherence to Islam, Saudi Arabia would be required to follow the laws of the Qur’an closely using the scripture as guidance; it would also have to turn to Hadith. Hadith are the quotations of the Prophet Muhammad[4]. Sabria Jawhar, a prominent female journalist of the Saudi Gazzette claims, “If all women were given the rights the Qur’an guarantees us, and not be supplanted by tribal customs, then the issue of whether Saudi women have equal rights would be reduced” (Wagner, 2010). If the former, is the case than the country should have never adapted any law that would deem women inferior. For example, the Prophet[5] is reported to have said “You have rights over your women, and your women have rights over you” (Public Broadcasting Service, 2002). One of the Prophet Muhammad’s[6] many great accomplishments was the establishment of Women’s Rights in the 7th century. During the 7th century women did not have rights, even the right to life was not guaranteed. In reality, the burial of infant girls was a common practice, in times were girls were held as the useless sex as well as in time of scarcity. “In the Qur'an, it is said that on Judgment Day "buried girls" will rise out of their graves and ask for what crime they were killed. Part of Muhammad's legacy was to end infanticide and establish explicit rights for women” (Public Broadcasting Service, 2002).
Overall while the world complains that reform is slow, and may not be up to par with western progress, many factors must be considered, the population, culture, history, religious background, political circumstances, economic situation and values of each country must be considered. These factors establish the priorities of a country, within which some factors such as economy, politics, foreign policy and health may rank first. Considering this, the rapid expansion of multiple sectors in Saudi Arabia including Women’s Rights must be applauded. While such comparisons come easily through a call for human rights, it must be understood that not all countries or people are made the same and as such there is no formula for how and when human rights become enforced. While a positive effort is being made with regards to Women’s Rights, other Western interpretations are not yet welcome, a portrayal of the balance of ensuring rights and respecting cultures. Nevertheless, this is the very purpose of Anthropological study, to better understand these factors which may aid in a country’s unique establishment of rights through dialogue, accommodation and/or policy reforms.

By Yasmeen Husain 

[1] Generally Islamic scholars, who provide their own interpretations of Hadith and Qur’an.
[2] “And say to the believing women to lower their gazes, and to guard their private parts, and not to display their beauty (zeenah) except what is apparent of it, and to extend their headcoverings (khimars) to cover their bosoms (jaybs), and not to display their beauty except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband's fathers, or their sons, or their husband's sons, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their womenfolk, or what their right hands rule (slaves), or the followers from the men who do not feel sexual desire, or the small children to whom the nakedness of women is not apparent, and not to strike their feet (on the ground) so as to make known what they hide of their adornments. And turn in repentance to Allah together, O you believers, in order that you are successful.” (Surat-un-Nur: 31).
[3] Religiously impermissible, Forbidden.
[4] Peace Be Upon Him.
[5] Peace Be Upon Him.
[6] Peace Be Upon Him.

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