Editor in Chief: Moh. Reza Huwaida Monday, March 25th, 2019

Saudi Women – The Victims of Gender Discrimination

The recent statement of a high-ranking Saudi scholar about women’s wearing was received with mixed reaction on the social media. A number of individuals believed that this peculiar fatwa (religious decree) that Saudi women do not have to wear abaya is iconoclastic and Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, who issued the fatwa, will have to recant it.
Although women’s rights have been extended in recent years – for instance, they were allowed to vote and stand as candidates in municipal elections for the first time in 2015 – their public behavior is still severely restricted.
The dress code for Saudi women is governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic tenets and is enforced to varying degrees in Saudi Arabia. Women are expected to wear a full black cloak called “abaya” and a face-veil called “niqab”. Traditionally, a woman’s clothing must not reveal anything about her body. It is supposed to be thick, opaque, and loose. It should not resemble the clothing of 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. 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.
In 2008 Khamisa Mohammad Sawadi, a 75-year-old woman, was sentenced to 40 lashes and imprisonment for allowing a man to deliver bread to her directly in her home. Sawadi, a non-citizen, was deported.
In 2010, a clerical adviser to the Royal court and Ministry of Justice issued a fatwa suggesting that women should provide breast milk to their employed drivers thereby making them relatives. The driver could then be trusted to be alone with the woman.
In September 2011, a woman from Jeddah was sentenced to ten lashes by whip for driving a car. In contrast to this punishment, Maha al-Qatani, the first woman in Saudi Arabia to receive a traffic ticket, was only fined for a traffic violation. The whipping sentence followed months of protests by female activists and just two days after the then King Abdullah announced greater political participation for women in the future. However, the sentence was overturned by the late King Abdullah.
In some cases, victims of sexual assault were punished for khalwa (being alone with an unrelated male) prior to the assault. In the Qatif girl rape case, an 18-year-old victim of kidnapping and gang rape was sentenced by a Saudi court to six months in prison and 90 lashes. The judge ruled she violated laws on segregation of the sexes, as she was in an unrelated man’s car at the time of the attack. She was also punished for trying to influence the court through the media. Saudi’s Ministry of Justice defended the sentence, saying she committed adultery and “provoked the attack” because she was “indecently dressed”.
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.
In September 2011, the late King Abdullah announced that women would be allowed to vote and run for office in the 2015 municipal elections. Although Abdullah was no longer alive at the time of the 2015 municipal elections, women were allowed to vote and stand as candidates for the first time in Saudi’s history. Subsequently, 20 female candidates were elected to the approximately 2,100 municipal council seats being contested. Salma bintHizab al-Oteibi was the first elected female politician in Saudi Arabia.
I believe that the campaign for women’s rights will be fruitful and one day Saudi women will be able to exercise their rights and freedoms with less barriers. I strongly support the recent statement of Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, who is a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, regarding the wearing of Saudi women. Wearing abaya is not mandatory in Islam and more than 90 percent of women do not wear abaya in Islamic countries as al-Mutlaq maintained, “More than 90 percent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas. So we should not force people to wear abayas.” Hence, Saudi government will have to entitle men and women equally and stop imposing restrictions on women. Discriminating women on the basis of their gender is not only against Islamic tenets but also against international instruments.