Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia

This month heralded a historic moment for women in Saudi Arabia. On December 12, women voted in municipal elections for the first time, and were permitted to run for office as well. Any sign of lessening restrictions is an absolute positive for social justice and equality, but the primary value is largely symbolic. Women won a mere 1 percent of municipal seats, which hold virtually no power within the dictatorial monarchist system in Saudi Arabia.

The gulf nation’s repressiveness extends to all corners of society. A 19-year old boy, arrested at the age of 15 for “being in the area of a protest,” is currently on death row. Due to be beheaded any day, his parents made an emotional plea to The Guardian for international intervention. According to a spokesperson from Reprieve, a nonprofit group working to prevent such gross instances of state violence, authorities often follow through with beheadings without informing family or lawyers.

Consider, too, that homosexuality is punishable by death, and the bigger obstacles for a freer and more just society emerge in full view.

Saudi women face some of the toughest restrictions in the world, subject to rigidly enforced social codes and the patriarchal control of husbands and fathers. They are not allowed to use swimming pools, interact with unrelated men without permission, or wear even modestly revealing clothes (many are forced to where an abaya and a head scarf). Only men have the right to unilaterally divorce their partner. And – while permitted to vote in this month’s elections – many women simply could not register to vote or participate on election day because they required a man to drive them (women still cannot legally drive) or their husbands and fathers simply disallowed them under the restrictive male guardianship system.

The last two decades have seen greater liberalization for women’s rights. Former Saudi King Abdullah carried out a number of measures designed to heighten women’s place in society, including key appointments of women to top government posts and the criminalization of domestic violence.

Some prominent voices in Saudi society are notably pro-equality, at least in comparison to the nation’s social norms. Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal – among the richest individuals in the world who also recently announced that he was giving away his $32 billion fortune to charity – employs more women then men and does not require female staffers to wear concealing clothing. Saudi NGO groups, such as the Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights, organizes on behalf of women’s rights.

But political dissent is exceedingly difficult in Saudi Arabia, apparent in the abundance of executions and arrests on flimsy and often dubious charges. Bottom up organizing for women’s rights organizations is thus hindered.

There are number of different causes that nonprofits can focus on in order to improve women’s standing in the world. While the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire may seem like distant history in the United States, unsafe and lethal working conditions continue to exist around the world in workshops that produce items for the US market. More than 1,800 women have died, for example, in Bangladeshi factory fires since 2005.

Even in the developed West, women receive less pay on average then men. This injustice perpetuates precarious financial existences for women while further engendering a lesser valuation of their essential contributions to society. Additionally, women’s rights to family planning and the right to control their own bodies are virtually nonexistent in many parts of the globe, and often face unwarranted scrutiny and attack here in the United States.

Generally speaking, the world has come a long way. But as 2016 approaches, it would do well to reflect on these areas of neglect, and to support nonprofit organizations and philanthropies that work toward a greater gender equality. 

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