In Depth

What women can and can’t do in Saudi Arabia

Restrictive regulations remain despite social reforms giving women long fought for rights

A surprising set of social reforms have granted women freedoms previously prohibited under Saudi Arabia’s strictly enforced Islamic law. 

Under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, women have had the right to get their own passports, as well as travel abroad and live independently without the permission of a male guardian, or “wali”. 

The changes are part of the crown prince’s plan to modernise the Middle Eastern country. The reforms, alongside his diversification strategy, known as Vision 2030, would help Saudi Arabia to “eradicate the remnants of extremism” and embrace a more “moderate” version of Islamic law under his leadership, he said in 2017. A year later, a change in regulations meant women could drive for the first time in the kingdom. 

However, the country remains incredibly prohibitive on what women can and cannot do. Although women can now undertake the pilgrimage to Mecca without a male guardian – which one woman told Voice of America was a “miracle” – they can only do so as part of a group. A male relative is still required to give permission for a woman to marry, start certain types of business, leave prison or leave a domestic abuse shelter. 

Critics say that the reforms amount to little more than “propaganda”. Duaa Dhainy, a researcher at the European-Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, said the reforms “don’t impact the human rights situation in a meaningful way”, Deutsche Welle reported.  

Despite “some changes” there has been “no real difference” to the country’s stance on freedom of opinion, Dhainy continued. Saudi Arabia remains in the ten lowest-ranked countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap report.  

Several women’s rights activists have been imprisoned in recent years, with some facing restricted freedoms even after their release. The New York Times’ Cairo Bureau Chief Vivian Yee also noted that “it still falls to women in many households to negotiate their freedoms” with male relatives. 

Here are some of the restrictions women face in Saudi Arabia: 

Dress codes 

The dress code for women is enforced to varying degrees across Saudi Arabia. Women are required to dress modestly, and this means tight-fitting clothing and see-through materials are generally prohibited. Wearing heavy make-up is generally considered inappropriate.  

Traditionally, the abaya – a long, loose garment that typically has a black headscarf or niqab which was the norm through much of the 20th century – is worn over a woman’s clothing when in public. However, in 2018 the crown prince somewhat relaxed the dress code, and said women did not have to wear an abaya in public. 

While some conservative Saudis still opt for a black abaya, in cities many are now “opting for conservative but creative alternatives: sporty jumpsuits, business-cut robes and even kimonos”, The Wall Street Journal reported.  

Changes in both attitudes and enforcement have come about since 2016, “when King Salman stripped the religious police of arrest powers, removing the enforcers of the Saudi dress code”, the newspaper continued.  

Interaction with men 

Saudi Arabia is considered one of the world’s most gender-segregated countries. In recent history, this has meant women faced limits on the amount of time spent with men to whom they are not related, while public transport, parks, and beaches across most of the country also had strict gender-based rules. 

Unlawful mixing as previously led to criminal charges being brought against both parties, but women have typically faced harsher punishment. 

In December 2019, restaurants were no longer required to have separate entrances for men and women, and some ceased to enforce segregation.  

While gender segregation in the workplace has not been a legal requirement since 2005, many employers continue to separate the sexes “to balance the conservative values of a majority-male workforce with the country’s apparent desire to get more women into work”, The Guardian reported.  

One company, however, has opted for a gender-based approach to employment in order to empower women. In 2021, supermarket chain LuLu opened its first shop with an all-women staff in Jeddah. General Manager Maha Mohammed Alqarni said it was a “great honour” to “represent the growing community of Saudi women who are supporting the progress of the country’s economic activities”. 

Choosing to have an abortion 

A male guardian’s approval is still required in order for a woman to seek a legal abortion in Saudi Arabia. The law permits abortion only on the basis of health or therapeutic grounds, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights

The country was one of 32, including the US, Belarus and Hungary, to sign the Geneva Consensus Declaration in 2020, which states that “there is no international right to abortion, nor any international obligation on the part of states to finance or facilitate abortion.”  

An online resource for expats notes many living in the kingdom will return to their home country in order to terminate a pregnancy. 

Restrictions on family life 

There is no family law in Saudi Arabia, and as a result domestic relations such as marriage and divorce are largely governed by sharia law. 

Women require the permission of a male guardian in order to marry, and divorce can also be a more complicated process for women than men. Until 2019, there was no regulation in place to stop Saudi women from being divorced without their knowledge, which meant they could be left unaware of their alimony rights.  

Although the crown prince “appears committed to his social agenda”, The New York Times’s Yee stressed that “the gulf between strict and tolerant families can be vast”. With so many women’s rights dependent on a male guardian’s permission, and even with the string of social reforms seen in the past two years, the situation for women in Saudi Arabia remains prohibitive. 

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