In Depth

What are women banned from doing in Saudi Arabia?

Social reforms in the kingdom not as far reaching as first assumed, say campaigners

Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman came to power in Saudi Arabia in June 2017, the kingdom has hit the headlines for a string of surprising reforms.

In late 2019, the crown prince introduced new freedoms on females travelling alone, allowing them to get passports and travel abroad without the consent of male guardians.

In an article for The Guardian, Madawi al-Rasheed, a professor at the London School of Economics, notes that in the same period, women were allowed to “register a birth, marriage or divorce”. The move overturned legislation that for decades made it impossible for women to make decisions without the permission of a male “wali”, an official guardian, typically a father, brother, uncle or husband.

While the reforms were positively received at the time, campaigners have now said that they are much less extensive than they initially appeared to be and women remain “second-class citizens” in the country.

According to The Independent, “there is a serious lack of clarity over whether women will be able to travel abroad independently”, while Human Rights Groups have also pointed to a “crackdown over the last year on some of the country’s leading women’s rights activists”. Many of these campaigned for the right to drive or gain equal rights to men.

Women still cannot marry or leave prison or a domestic violence shelter without the consent of their male guardians. This means “it is nearly impossible for victims of domestic violence to independently seek protection or obtain legal redress”, explains political scientist Elham Manea in an article for German newspaper Deutsche Welle.

So, despite the seemingly cosmetic reforms, women in Saudi Arabia are still subject to a myriad of restrictions on everyday life. 

Yet women in Saudi Arabia are still subject to a myriad of restrictions on everyday life. Here are some of them:

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.

In July 2017, a prominent cleric called for even more modesty, urging the nation’s “daughters” to avoid “any abaya that has any decorations… No embellishment, no slits, no openings”.

Two weeks later, a video circulated on social media showing an anonymous Saudi woman walking around a deserted fort north of Riyadh wearing a miniskirt, in seeming defiance of such strict regulations on women’s clothing.

The six-second clip sparked a heated debate in the country, with conservatives demanding her arrest pitted against reformers applauding her bravery. The woman was summoned for questioning by police, but later released without charge.

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. However, the government announced at the end of 2019 that restaurants are no longer required to have separate entrances segregated by sex.

Unlawful mixing can lead to criminal charges being brought against both parties, but women typically face harsher punishment.

Compete freely in sports

In 2015, 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 female athletes to the Olympics for the first time, at London 2012, hardline clerics denounced the two competitors as “prostitutes”. The women also had to be accompanied by a male guardian and cover their hair.

However, in September 2017, Saudi Arabia’s national stadium welcomed its first ever female spectators. Women were assigned their own section in the normally male-only venue to watch celebrations marking the anniversary of the founding of Saudi Arabia.

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 an article headlined “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. “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 under way, 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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