Welcome to Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world to allow beheadings as legal punishments. Home of the oppressed, land of the unfree.
In 2018, women gained the right to drive in Saudi Arabia, where the two holiest sites in Islam, Mecca, and Medina, are located. The Crown-Prince Mohammed bin Salman is hailed as a “feminist” and a “reformer,” however, these claims are far from real.
However, women driving doesn’t mean equity, equality, or even basic human rights for Saudi women. Saudi Arabia making history as the last country to lift their ban on women driving isn’t the tremendous achievement sympathizers of the Crown-Prince make it out to be.
It’s the work of brave activists, journalists, and everyday women who have dared to defy the arbitrary ban on women driving, leading to this basic achievement in women’s rights. Regardless of his decision to give women the right to drive, many female activists remain in prison—being tortured, beaten, and raped.
The Male Guardianship System and the detainment of women’s rights activists expose the lived realities of Saudi women. Women in Saudi Arabia are rendered legal minors through the Male Guardianship System. It dehumanizes women by disregarding their bodily integrity and perpetuates violence against women. The Saudi government imprisons women’s rights activists to maintain their power. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report in 2018, Saudi Arabia ranked 146 out of 153 countries. Despite being incredibly different from Yemen in terms of GDP, there is only a 7-spot difference between the two countries, as Yemen ranks 153 out of 153.
Why Does Saudi Arabia Rank At the Bottom in Terms of Gender Disparity, Despite Being One of the Wealthiest Nations in the World?
Perhaps because the Kingdom has yet to abolish the Male Guardianship System, which has served to silence and abuse women, it perpetuates the idea that Saudi women are their male counterparts’ property. The notion that Saudi women’s sovereignty is placed in the hands of men renders women as “legal minors” and the possession of their male guardians. Saudi women are not to be seen or heard and segregated from the opposite sex.
The dehumanization of women occurs when Saudi society tells them they cannot decide for themselves and are punished for what is inflicted upon them. Take the Qatif girl of Saudi Arabia, who was sentenced to prison and 90 lashes after being gang-raped because she was in a car with a man who wasn’t her relative when she was raped, which is a criminal offense.
Women Are Just Objects, Right?
Women are rendered men’s possessions for many reasons, the main one being Saudi women being trapped in abusive relationships with their male guardians. If they go to women’s shelters to escape violence from their guardians, they nevertheless need their permission to leave the shelter. Women are at the complete mercy of their masters or their “guardians,” as the Saudi government wants the world to believe. According to Human Rights Watch, 59% of abuse cases reported by Saudi women were domestic abuse cases.
There must be international condemnation for the gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia and demand for eliminating the Male Guardianship System. Without the system in place, women may exit prison, marry, divorce, study abroad, work in healthcare, divorce, and engage in financial transactions without their male guardians’ consent. It is essential to understand that women don’t need to be “guarded” or “protected,” they need to be free.
Women Driving in Saudi Arabia, What’s the Hype All About?
Granting women the right to drive was one of the first official acts of the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, which has caused much controversy in this ultra-conservative nation. Generations of Saudi school children are taught that “women’s brains were smaller than men’s and couldn’t process complex information, that it was shameful for women to interact publicly with strangers, that sitting behind the wheel of a car could cause birth defects for a pregnant woman’s child.”
For the House of Saud to announce that women can drive reverses years of indoctrination of Saudi citizens by the state. The question remains, what inspired this move by a ruler who still enforces the Male Guardianship System and forces the practice of Wahhabism throughout his Kingdom? In recent years, pressure from women’s rights groups, starting from the Arab Spring in 2011 to the backlash against women’s rights activists’ detainment in May 2018, led to this extraordinary decision.
Detainment of Women’s Rights Activists
Despite Bin-Salman’s claims to bring Saudi Arabia back to “moderate” Islam by giving all genders the right to drive, Mohammed Bin Salman enforces the torture, rape, and killing of women’s rights activists. The removal of the ban on women driving is a response to years of protest by Saudi activists calling for fundamental rights and freedoms granted to their male counterparts. There was international outrage and condemnation over the detainment of Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who championed the protest on the ban on women driving. Reports were alleging that she has been tortured and subjected to electric shock and threatened with rape and sexual assault in Saudi prisons.
She has been detained since May 2018 and was accused of being a “foreign entity to undermine the country’s stability and social fabric.” This backlash would push Saudi leaders to repair their image by promoting the monarchy as progressive instead of absolute conservatives. From the horrors of Nazi Germany to the Arab Spring, achieving the “common good” has taken precedence over the rights and freedoms of women and minorities.
The idea that Bin Salman will reform Saudi Arabia is an insult to the many journalists, activists, and bloggers that have been imprisoned, tortured, or murdered due to their criticisms of the government and advocacy for women’s rights. Women in Saudi Arabia are still unable to appear in public without wearing a hijab and long, black abaya, cannot mix with the opposite sex, or make any decisions without their male guardian’s consent. Saudi Arabia remains one of the world’s worst countries to be a woman as women are second-class citizens.
Women and feminists worldwide must stand in solidarity with Saudi women and activists. Subscribe to learn more about intersectional feminism and activism.
- “Saudi Arabia.” Patriot Act. New York City, New York: Netflix, October 28, 2018.
- Elthway, Mona. Headscarves and Hymens:Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution.