Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud has been officially appointed as the Vice President for Women’s Affairs of the General Sports Authority – an institution that has always been monopolised by men. This is a positive step and provides a dose of optimism in relation to correcting the situation of women in Saudi Arabia. This is a difficult and complicated matter on all levels.
The status of women is a problem that is as old as the state; nearly a century. The problem has accompanied the state in all its stages, since it was established by transforming a society which was mostly made up of nomads and peasants into a modern civil society. Old traditions still remain dominant at home, in the street, at school and at work. The story is a long one and can be summarised by giving an example. Up until recently, women did not have the right to possess an ID card. A woman’s ID amounted to a line that was included on her father’s or husband’s ID card. Three years ago, ID cards became mandatory for all women over the age of fifteen. Some people objected to this at the time but after that the matter became normal. Recently, divorcees and widows have been permitted to have ID cards issued for their children so that they can enrol in schools and get access to health care. Health care institutions that refuse to treat women without the consent of their fathers or husbands are now punished, unlike in the past.
During the past three years, many regulations have been developed and corrected. Women are now allowed to hold positions that they were previously banned from such as working as a lawyer in courts. After much controversy and objection, the wishes of women were granted and not only were they allowed to work as lawyers, but the cases that they work on are not limited to those concerning women. Today they are entitled to take legal action concerning all sorts of different issues, just like men. In three years, about one hundred women have become lawyers and more than six hundred qualified women are training to become lawyers.
Women were given the right to participate in municipal elections; they are allowed to vote in them and stand as candidates. It was a big occasion when more than 100,000 Saudi women voted. Sadly, winning candidates were deprived of their rights and were isolated from the councils. This was an internal decision invented by the ministry, and it does not apply to other state councils!
This practice may be an authoritarian one rather than one based on regulations. An example of this is when some compel women who want to study for a masters or a PhD to obtain their guardian’s consent. These people impose laws of their own which they must be held accountable for.
Since women have been permitted to carry their own ID cards, a series of discriminatory measures against women have been abolished. For example, women are no longer required to be accompanied by a male guardian in order to stay at a hotel. The controversial issue about whether Saudi women are entitled to a passport remains. From what I understand, a woman does not need her guardian’s consent to obtain a passport. However, she must obtain her guardian’s approval in order to travel.
I asked a female legislator why the Shura Council or the government have not been advised to amend the resolution, especially as this would be in line with the previous series of procedures. She explained that many of the controversial issues are not based on complicated laws and rules, but how regulations are implemented, and the relevant authority can amend this.
These issues show us the old philosophy of the role of government. This is no longer suitable for modern society. It is based on the state playing the role of a father or husband with family members and acts on behalf of an employer toward his employees, protecting the former’s rights. Many cases in court show husbands and fathers abusing the rights of their dependents.
In terms of correcting other laws and regulations in favour of Saudi women, there is much work to be done. Refining social traditions that sometimes prevent women from exercising their legal rights is a task that needs even more attention. Contradictions can still be seen in society, and an example of this is that women are encouraged to study but are prevented from working. The number of female students enrolled in general and higher education is astounding and more than the number of male students! According to the Global Gender Gap Report carried out by the World Economic Forum in 2015, Saudi Arabia’s ranking improved a lot compared to other countries in terms of educational opportunities for women. It was ranked 82 among 145 countries in the world, but was ranked 138 for its economic opportunities such as jobs.
The situation of Saudi women has improved in terms of their right to inheritance, owning land, the prevention of female genital mutilation, the criminalisation of physical abuse, the right to abortion for health reasons, setting a minimum age for marriage, allowing a woman to file for divorce and the granting of maternity leave. There are many other things that can be improved e.g. allowing women to drive and expanding their employment opportunities.