Saudi Arabia: Women in the Kingdom

Alexandra Wexler is a student at Stanford University.  She recently completed a paper about the perceptions of Women in the Kingdom.  Alexandra not only asked me for some comments but gave me permission to share her completed paper with American Bedu readers.  Her paper addresses a number of key points about perceptions and freedoms of women in Saudi Arabia which in turn make for good discussions.  Following is Alexandra’s paper in its entirety:

As a Saudi woman, Hanadi Zakariya Hindi is not allowed to drive a car.  So instead, she became a pilot.

In 2004, Hindi became the first accredited female pilot to fly in a country that continues its ban on woman drivers to this day, according to an article in the Times of London, “Banned from driving a car, Saudi woman becomes pilot.”  To boot, Hindi’s employer is none other than Prince al-Walid bin Talal, a billionaire nephew of King Fahd.

“Recruiting Captain Hindi as a pilot . . . is a major step in the employment of women and in their more active participation in Saudi society,” the Prince said. “I’m in full support of Saudi ladies working in all fields.”

Saudi Arabia is a country filled with oddities.  Women can fly airplanes, but they cannot drive cars.  They must cover themselves from head to toe in public, but often wear stylish designer clothes underneath their abayas.

“In the case of Saudi Arabia it’s difficult to understand the cultural context,” said Patrick Ryan, the editor of the Saudi-US Relations Information Service.

According to Ryan, modernity didn’t arrive in Saudi Arabia until about 1964, when King Faisal came to power.

Up until that point, Saudi Arabia essentially existed in a time capsule.  “No one wanted to go in there.  There was nothing there,” said David Long, a former US diplomat and author of Culture and Customs of Saudi Arabia.

“The Saudis were still poor church mice in the 1920s and early 30s,” he added.

It wasn’t until oil was discovered in the Kingdom, around 1938, that Saudi society emerged, blinking, in the bright sunlight of modernity.

“What we went through from the time of the middle ages to now, they went through in living memory,” Long explained.  “The change that I have seen from 1967 to the present is absolutely mind boggling.”

Long can remember a time when yellow street signs depicting pedestrians had no heads, only bodies, “because only god can make a human being,” he said.  “Well, that’s long gone.  Now six-year-olds walk down the street with mobile phones.”

However, this sudden leap forward in time has left a lot to be desired in Saudi society.  In the Western media, the country’s stance on and laws regarding women are often portrayed as an international embarrassment, human rights violation, or worse.

“If you talk to the women, you’ll get mixed results,” said Carol Fleming, a former US diplomat who lived in Riyadh for three and a half years with her Saudi husband.

“Some women are frustrated with the lack of freedom, and some are very content and don’t want changes,” she explained.  “The first thing you need to do is see the living, breathing individual behind that veil.  She has her own mind and her voice with which she can speak, as well as her goals, objectives, and desires.”

According to Fleming, the biggest problem that women in Saudi society face is not the ban on driving, but the mahrem, or male guardianship system.  Fleming, who has nine Saudi sister-in-laws, would know.  In her experience, whether or not a woman feels oppressed is often directly correlated to how fair and open-minded her male guardian is.

“The mahrem can decide whether she can pursue further education, work, have a bank account, go out, and travel inside or outside of the country,” Fleming explained.  “You can really compare Saudi Arabia and its women to the 1950s Betty Crocker era of America.”

However, the general consensus among those who have first-hand knowledge of the country is that things are moving, if ever so slowly, forward.

“We’ve seen such a rapid transformation in the lives of women in the Kingdom,” Ryan said.  “They now make up more than half the undergraduate students at universities.”

According to Long, the West would also do well to remember that women in the United States didn’t have the right to vote until 1920, not so long ago on the timeline of history.

“Women back in the time of the birth of Islam, they were nurturers, mothers, and ran the home.  Now it’s fascinating how it’s gone,” Long observed.  “With younger generations in Saudi Arabia, there’s not just a generation gap, there are several generation gaps.”

Indeed, if Saudi Arabia really did only just emerge from what was essentially a culture of the 1400s, the progress that they have made in their society in the last 40 years is remarkable.

“The foundation is being laid so that women will have chances and choices to be independent in the Kingdom,” Fleming said.  “The opportunity to drive is less important than changes to the educational system, and changes to the mahrem system, but I believe that the infrastructure is being put into place.”

There are certain instances, though, in which it’s hard to explain away or excuse the Kingdom’s practices.

One example is a case in 2009, where a Saudi judge refused to annul the marriage of an eight-year-old girl to a 47-year-old man.

“The girl’s father, according to the attorney, arranged the marriage in order to settle his debts with the [husband], who is ‘a close friend’ of his,” stated an article that was published on CNN.com, “Saudi judge refuses to annul 8-year-old’s marriage.”

“In cases where there are violations of international principles, those need to be called to attention and called what they are,” Ryan said.                                    “So, this isn’t to say that we should be pleased with the current state of women, but this isn’t the end state of women in the Kingdom either.”

It could be said, then, that although the status of women in Saudi Arabia is an undeniably contentious subject, certain traditions and laws should be given cultural deference to and looked at in context, and others that ought to be called out for what they blatantly are- abuses.

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3 Responses

  1. Good paper.

  2. Nice job on the paper, but nothing new to those of us living over here of course.

    Did you see the latest Fatwa that women are not allowed to be cashiers because they would be ‘mixing’ with men? Well, you know, imagine how many phone numbers could possibly be passed on to a cashier that she might call up! ha ha NOT! And, from what I was told, these women that were working as cashiers were women that were poor, or widowed and in need of money from a job to survive. What’s the worst that could happen to them? That they get married to one of the shop’s customers? That would be fantastic, wouldn’t it?
    And, security cameras facing the customers just might keep everyone that’s in line….in line!
    Just an idea.

  3. Nice.

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