Nine things women can't do in Saudi Arabia

Jul 28, 2016

After years of repressive attitudes towards women, things are slowly changing in the Muslim kingdom

Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia's human rights record, especially with regards to protecting women, has often been called into question.

Although women's rights have been incrementally extended in recent years – they were allowed to vote in municipal elections for the first time last year - their actions are still severely restricted.

In a country where a woman cannot even open a bank account without her husband's permission, here are several other things they are still unable to do:

Drive a car

There is no official law that bans women from driving, but deeply held religious beliefs prohibit it, with Saudi clerics arguing that female drivers "undermine social values".

In 2011, the "Women2Drive" campaign encouraged women to disregard the laws and post images and videos of themselves driving on social media to raise awareness of the issue in an attempt to force change. It was not a major success.

Saudi journalist Talal Alharbi says women should be allowed to drive - but only to take their children to school or a family member to hospital. "Women should accept simple things", he writes for Arab News. "This is a wise thing women could do at this stage. Being stubborn won't support their cause.

Wear clothes or make-up that "show off their beauty"

The dress code for women is governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law and is enforced to varying degrees across the country. The majority of women wear an abaya – a long cloak – and a head scarf. The face does not necessarily need to be covered, "much to the chagrin of some hardliners", says The Economist. But this does not stop the religious police from harassing women for exposing what they consider to be too much flesh or wearing too much make-up.

The dress code was extended to all female television presenters last year. The king's advisory body, the Shura Council, ruled they should wear "modest" clothes that do not "show off their beauty", according to Arab News.

Interact with men

Women are required to limit the amount of time spent with men to whom they are not related. The majority of public buildings, including offices, banks and universities, have separate entrances for the different sexes, the Daily Telegraph reports. Public transportation, parks, beaches and amusement parks are also segregated in most parts of the country. Unlawful mixing will lead to criminal charges being brought against both parties, but women typically face harsher punishment.

Go for a swim

Women are not allowed to use public swimming pools available to men and can only swim in private ones or female-only gyms and spas. Reuters editor Arlene Getz describes her experience of trying to use the gym and pool at an upmarket Riyadh hotel: "As a woman, I wasn't even allowed to look at them ('there are men in swimsuits there,' a hotel staffer told me with horror) - let alone use them."

Compete freely in sports

Last year, Saudi Arabia proposed hosting an Olympic Games without women. "Our society can be very conservative," said Prince Fahad bin Jalawi al-Saud, a consultant to the Saudi Olympic Committee. "It has a hard time accepting that women can compete in sports."

When Saudi Arabia sent its female athletes to the London Games for the first time, hardline clerics denounced the competitors as "prostitutes". The women also had to be accompanied by a male guardian and cover their hair.

Try on clothes when shopping

"The mere thought of a disrobed woman behind a dressing-room door is apparently too much for men to handle," says Vanity Fair writer Maureen Dowd in A Girl's Guide to Saudi Arabia.

Other more unusual restrictions on women's lives include entering a cemetery and reading an uncensored fashion magazine.

However, adds Dowd, everything in Saudi Arabia "operates on a sliding scale, depending on who you are, whom you know, whom you ask, whom you're with, and where you are".

But things are slowly beginning to modernise in a country that has historically had some of the most repressive attitudes towards women.

"Saudi Arabia is the world's most gender-segregated nation, but amid changes now under way, multiple generations of women are debating how to be truly modern and truly Saudi," says National Geographic.

A transformation is indeed underway, confirms royal adviser Hanan Al-Ahmadi: "But we need to be able to create this change gradually and maintain our identity."

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