Richmond World Affairs Council

Saudi Arabia and Women’s Rights

A recent article in the Jerusalem Post described an incident in which a Saudi Arabian woman beat up a religious policeman. The woman was at an amusement park in the company of a male friend when they were approached by the policeman. After he interrogated them, she began kicking him and it resulted in his hospitalization. This episode received national coverage and reinvigorated a debate about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

This incident is remarkable for several reasons. It illustrates that Saudi Arabian women may be growing tired of the restrictions enforced on them and are ready to take action against them. In this patriarchal society, women’s rights are not a priority and the time may have arrived that Saudi women are no longer willing to accept this. Rare occurrences like this also point out the negative feelings that many Saudis have towards the religious police. These law enforcement officers have a negative reputation among the Saudi Arabian population but are still supported.

Saudi Arabia adheres to one of the strictest forms of Islam and is a very traditional society when it comes to females and their place in society. It has a strict law that requires women to be accompanied by a male guardian; it could be a father, husband, brother, or some other relative. Without the above supervision, women are unable to leave the house, even if it’s to go to the hospital or to school. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice employ religious policemen who patrol the streets looking for violators of this law (Jerusalem Post). This law is reinforced by the Saudi government, the courts, and society.

It must be acknowledged that Saudi Arabia has taken steps to increase women’s freedom, especially in the last two years. Last fall, the head of the religious police in Mecca declared that there was no legal justification in the Quran for the segregation of men and women (Jerusalem Post). Although this declaration sparked an outcry, it was supported by the Saudi King. Going further, Saudi Arabia accepted a recommendation of the United Nation’s Human Right’s Council to abolish the archaic law of male guardianship. Unsurprisingly, these actions have spurred a national controversy and sparked debate over a sensitive issue.

While these steps have been taken to initiate change, they are mostly symbolic and have no genuine impact. Women are still required to get their husband’s approval when leaving the house and the virtue police are still allowed to punish women socializing with non-familial males. In order to bring about genuine changes, public opinion must support these new initiatives and be willing to break with traditional cultural norms.

These occurrences appear to be the beginning of a transformation in Saudi Arabia. However, there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done in order to bring about authentic change. There are two necessary steps that must be taken to make this happen. The first is that more women must be willing to stand up for themselves, and for each other, and fight for their equality. The second component is that the government, especially King Abdullah, must support these changes. It is imperative that he turns them into reality and not just talk. The government and royal family need to follow through on their promises to their people. There are forces in Saudi Arabia that have made progress in women’s rights but they need more attention, support, and encouragement.

The woman who stood up for herself in the amusement park should be applauded for her bravery and sense of justice. The normal penalty for this type of behavior is a lashing followed by imprisonment. Although her punishment has not been revealed, imprisonment and lashings seem hypocritical in light of the reforms the Saudi King has promised to implement. Let’s hope this woman’s actions initiate real change in this country.

~ Alissa Aronovici