When Islam was revealed well over 1400 years ago, women were given rights that were until then unheard of, especially in 7th century Arabia. Women were given the right to vote by being allowed to voice their opinions, they were given the right to inheritance, to choose who to marry, and were given certain rights from their husbands. Essentially, they were made humans, when before they were little more than property. These things were ground breaking progress 1400 years ago. But that was 1400 years ago.
What happened? Why have some Muslim countries and cultures, in particular Saudi Arabia, made little progress since then in regards to women’s rights? Why haven’t Muslims taken the initiative that began in the time of the Prophet Mohammed and allowed women to progress with the rest of society? There’s been progress in science, medicine, education, technology…but women? We’re still stuck in the 7th century over here.
In Saudi Arabia, women, regardless of age, are or marital status are required to have a male guardian. A woman cannot travel, cannot attend university, and cannot work, and cannot marry without her guardian’s permission. In some cases, although the law doesn’t support the practice, a woman cannot receive major medical treatment without the permission of her guardian.
In my personal experience, I needed The Mr’s permission to have a minor surgery, and according to my sister in law, an OBGYN at one of the city’s famous hospitals, she’s known of women to suffer and babies to die because guardians refused to give permission for pain medication or surgery. When I started a new job and The Mr. was out of the country, I had to have his brother’s permission and signature to work. Every time I want to travel, The Mr. has to obtain the exit and reentry permit and is present at the airport to make sure his permission is obvious to the passport control officer.
Some claim that the guardianship system is for women’s own good, that it is a protection for women, that a woman’s guardian knows what is best for her. I might agree to that if we were talking about girls, but we’re talking about women of all ages. I might also be more inclined to agree if a woman’s own son couldn’t eventually become her guardian. Can you imagine having to ask your son for permission to marry, to work, or to travel? Just because he’s a man? Give me a break.
Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. No matter what her age, no matter if she is a licensed driver in another country, no matter if there is an emergency…she’s forbidden to get behind the wheel of a car. Those who support this rule (it’s not really a law, more like an unwritten rule) claim that women driving would make them vulnerable, would encourage mixing with the opposite sex and strangers, and would eventually lead to a steep decline in morality and “provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce.” And one of my readers even asserted that the roads are not safe enough in Saudi Arabia for women to drive.
Where do I begin with that? Women are forced to mix with the opposite sex, made as vulnerable as I’ve ever felt in KSA, when they climb into a car with a taxi driver or their hired driver. There’s plenty of opportunity to be promiscuous here without driving, men are no doubt the leading employers of prostitutes, yet they’re allowed to drive. Pornography? Really? There’s plenty of that on the internet for those who are interested (also, the main consumers of porn are men). Homosexuality, whether the nature or nurture variety, is shockingly common and is even made easier by the fact that girls and women spend SO much time together and are kept away from men, and divorce is already just as high, if not higher, than Western nations where women are allowed to drive. Saudi Arabia is indeed a leader in the world for road fatalities, but guess what…women are dying in those accidents even without being behind the wheel. Next. Preventing women from driving boils down to one thing: control.
Women in Saudi Arabia are required, no matter what their religion, to wear the abaya. Muslim women, depending on what city they’re in and if religious police are present, can also be required to wear a headscarf and face veil. While a lot of women wear these things out of obligation to their culture, respect for family tradition, and some as a symbol of their faith, there are women who if given the choice would choose to forgo being swathed in all black in the extreme desert heat. Other than women being forced to wear the burqa in Taliban controlled Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia is the only country that I know of that enforces a religious uniform of sorts for women.
When a woman is divorced in Saudi Arabia, she returns to the home of her father. If her father is dead, she goes to a brother or an uncle, or maybe a grown son. There is no concept of a single, independent woman in Saudi Arabia. Upon divorce, she may or may not be granted custody of her children. If the children are over the age of 7, they will likely live with their father or his relatives. Even if her husband dies, a woman’s children are not hers to keep. Some Muslims will say that a man is more capable of providing for children than a woman is (financially speaking), but if you ask me…and most mothers out there…there is no one more capable of taking care of a child than its mother.
Saudi women cannot pass citizenship onto their children. If a Saudi woman marries a non Saudi man, her children will never be considered Saudi in the eyes of the law. This problem exists within my inlaw’s family, where children do not have passports, where university education has to be paid for out of pocket, and where women have to consider sponsoring their own sons as “workers” to allow them to remain in the country they were born in. There is talk of a points system that allows a woman to pass her citizenship onto her children when they reach adulthood, but as with all legal processes in Saudi Arabia, it isn’t easy…and so far the adult children in this family are 0 for 3. Not granted.
The injustices go on and on and on.
Bill Gates may have said it best. Regarding a visit to Saudi Arabia, this quote is often cited: Bill Gates recalls once being invited to speak in Saudi Arabia and finding himself facing a segregated audience. Four-fifths of the listeners were men, on the left. The remaining one-fifth were women, all covered in black cloaks and veils, on the right. A partition separated the two groups. Toward the end, in the question-and-answer session, a member of the audience noted that Saudi Arabia aimed to be one of the Top 10 countries in the world in technology by 2010 and asked if that was realistic. “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country,” Gates said, “you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.” The small group on the right erupted in wild cheering.
Women were indeed given rights that were unheard of in their time 1400 years ago. But we’re not living 1400 years ago, Saudi Arabia. Times change, society changes, people change, and you don’t seem to have much issue with changing along with it until it comes to the issue of women. Not only are you not utilizing your women, you’re refusing to acknowledge that they have little more value than baby making machines. Why? What are you afraid of?
I’ve often said that Saudi Arabia will not change until the people demand change. Afterall, the Quran says: Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. King Abdullah has made progress for women, allotting 30 seats to women on the Shura Council, but there’s so much more that needs to be done. And it won’t happen if no one pushes for it. So get to it, Saudis. Stop settling for second rate, Saudi women, and stop allowing the less-than status to be forced on your women, Saudi men. Demand change, progress, and equality for women.