A 2015 gender gap index by the World Economic Forum has ranked Saudi Arabia as among the worst countries to be a woman, placing it at 134 out of 145 nations. But the question is, how long can this patriarchal society have women under its thumb?
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Narration: December 2015. Saudi women cast their first votes in the country's history. They’re also standing as candidates for the first time. According to the state media, the turnout is high. Officials say about 130,000 women have registered to vote. The figure still falls short of male voter registration, which stands above a million. Although the election is for municipal councils with few powers, it's a milestone for Saudi women. The election is segregated, like many other things in this deeply conservative society. And female voters have to be driven to the polls. They’re still banned from taking the wheel. In fact, Saudi Arabia is the only Muslim country that does not allow women to drive.
The lack of women’s rights to drive has created an odd phenomenon in Saudi Arabia: they are so curious to know what it feels like to drive that they are flocking to bumper cars at amusement parks where hours are reserved for women-only bumper-car rides.
The idea of women driving in Saudi Arabia has been a subject of constant national discussion.
Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh has recently said allowing women to drive is “a dangerous matter that should not be permitted.” That’s while, in April Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pointed out that allowing women to drive is “not a religious issue as much as it is an issue that relates to the community itself that either accepts it or refuses it.”
It seems that the main problem springs from the ruling religious system in Saudi Arabia, namely Wahhabi Takfirism which is different from other religious systems in the Muslim world.
Narration: In 2011, a group of Saudi women organized the "Women2Drive" campaign to encourage women to post on social media images and videos of themselves driving in an attempt to force change. However, it was not a big success as the government threatened them with arrest.
On Feb 4, 2016, The Week published an article about “Eleven things women in Saudi Arabia cannot do, mentioning a ban on women entering a Starbucks store in Riyadh as the latest in the long line of restrictions. A sign was placed in the window of the coffee shop saying: "Please no entry for ladies only send your driver to order thank you."
Here are some things Saudi women are still unable to do:
Going Anywhere Without a Chaperone:Saudi women need to be accompanied by a male guardian whenever they leave the house. The guardian is often a male relative and will accompany women on all of their errands, including shopping trips and visits to the doctor.
Interact with Men:The majority of public buildings including offices, banks and universities have separate entrances for men and women. Public transportation, parks, beaches and amusement parks are also segregated in most parts of the country.
Compete Freely in Sports: Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia proposed hosting an Olympic Games without women. In 2012, when Saudi Arabia sent its female athletes to the London games for the first time, the hard-liners denounced the women as "prostitutes".
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Narration: Other more unusual restrictions include: Trying on clothes when shopping, Entering a cemetery, Reading an uncensored fashion magazine, Buying a Barbie
One recent debate over whether women could work in lingerie shops reveals the divide between the kingdom’s women and the religious establishment. Religious authorities argued against letting women work in these stores, saying that it would give them too much independence and power.
While Saudi women face malignant strictures in society, they have to stand violence at home. Domestic abuse in Saudi Arabia began to receive public attention in 2004 after the popular television presenter Rania al-Baz was severely beaten by her husband, and photos of her disfigured face went viral. Violence against women at home was not traditionally seen as a criminal matter in Saudi Arabia until 2013 when the government launched its first major campaign against it.
Critics say the monarchy is still failing to take a systematic approach to dismantle the gender barriers. In March 2016, Al Arabia published an article on the rising domestic violence cases in Saudi Arabia.
According to a report by The Independent in May 2016, women in Saudi Arabia face flogging and imprisonment if they check their husband’s phone without his permission.
SOUNDBITE [English] Unknown Anchor: “Surfing around your husband's cell phone without permission can really cost you if you're a woman in Saudi Arabia, putting you at risk for flogging or even imprisonment. This type of offence is classified as a violation of privacy and could even land offenders before the court if a sue is filed against them.”
Narration: In its 2015 world report, Human Rights Watch says that Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system remains intact despite government pledges to abolish it. Under this system, women are forbidden from obtaining a passport, marrying, traveling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian. On the other hands, Saudis say that they’ve taken steps in reforming the system.
SOUNDBITE [English] Unknown Anchor: “Saudi Arabia is liberalizing. women are now entitled to see their contract they're forced to party to if they want to get married after being given permission to marry by their male guardians. That's a liberalizing move in Saudi Arabia ... and the alliance and the friendship with the US continue.
Saudi Arabian brides will now be allowed to have a copy of their marriage contract. And people say women are not respected in Saudi Arabia. Previously, only men were allowed to have their marriage contract. Now women will be allowed to have a copy - unclear whether they will be allowed to read it but they will be allowed to have a copy.
And I've been struggling to figure out why this was not allowed before. I can only think for myself that there are certain things within this marriage contract that perhaps the men thought they didn't need to know.
Are women allowed to read it before they sign it? That's really the question.
I really doubt it.
No word on whether they will need permission for a male guardian to read the marriage contract.”
The 2015 gender gap index by the World Economic Forum has ranked Saudi Arabia as among the worst countries to be a woman, placing it at 134 out of 145 nations. The social stricture against women in Saudi Arabia is very much like the one in territories under the control of Daesh. Despite protests by Saudi women or even some Saudi princes against the violation of women’s rights, it seems that the Wahaabi institution has the final word in this regard. And while the institution is tightening its grip on women more than before, it looks the other way when it comes to the Saudi court. While International human rights organizations voice their concern over women’s situation in this Arab country, the West has taken no step to convince Riyadh to improve the human rights situations and to move toward democracy. The question is, “Does the House of Saud have the silence of Wahhabi Takfiris about its close relations with Western countries and the supporters of the Israeli regime in exchange for giving this regressive group a free rein in treating women ?"