Allegations increase and paradoxes appear when it comes to the women’s rights file in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and they are almost the most distinctive feature of this file, whether it has been raised in the international forums that defend human rights or through interviews with high-ranking officials in the Kingdom.
The most significant allegations which have opened the Saudi women’s bleeding wound are what have been recently stated by Muhammad bin Salman, Deputy Crown Prince to the “Economist” magazine in early 2015, a year after his father, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud took the helm, about “achieving a progress” in the women’s rights file highlighting the participation of women in the latest municipal election in voting and nomination and considering that “they are responsible for themselves”. The young prince also stated that talking about “the permission” is referred to women who “do not reach a certain age”, and that the reason beyond the increase of the Saudi Arabia’s rate of women in the workforce to 18%, one of the lowest in the world, is the traditions and social values, considering that “the culture of woman in his country does not make her used to working, and that she needs more time to accustom herself to the idea of work”.
These assumptions are similar to that applied in the statements and reports of the Saudi official delegations to the International Human Rights Forums, since they constantly persist in denying the existence of any problems encountered by women, and that the reason of any obstacle is the women’s culture and traditions which they are brought up with. For instance but not limited, what has been reaffirmed by the Head of the Saudi delegation when his country submitted its second report to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Mechanism of the Human Rights Council (HRC) held in Geneva in 2013, in which he considered that the systems (i.e. rules and legislations) in his country do not differentiate between man and woman particularly the Basic Law. Article 8 of the Basic Law of Governance stipulates that the governance of Saudi Arabia is based on justice and equity in accordance with the Islamic Shari’a. He also considered that what is being said about some practices relating to the status of women in the Kingdom is due to “misconceptions or inaccurate and nonobjective information”, or to “wrong practices contradicting the provisions and values of Islamic Law and national laws”.
On the contrary, almost all human rights reports on human rights status in the Kingdom emphasize that the most important obstacle which prevents the Saudi women from enjoying their essential rights guaranteed to them by the Islamic Shari’a, objective laws and international conventions, is the male guardianship system in all their affairs regardless of their age, in an obvious paradox contrary to overcoming this obstacle as claimed by the Deputy Crown Prince.
Human Rights Organizations’ Attitudes towards the guardianship system:
In this regard, Human Right Watch (HRW) stated in its annual report that Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system remains intact despite government pledges to abolish it. Under this system, ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, traveling, or enrolling in higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother, or son.
In a summary of the High Commissioner for Human Rights sumitted to the UPR mechanism, the joint paper 3 and Human Right Watch noticed that the Kingdom did not achieve any progress regarding the elimination of the discriminatory male guardianship system though it pledged to abolish it. HRW urged the Kingdom to enact a law that abolishes the legal guardianship system over adult women and agree to enact a law to protect the women victims of domestic violence and provide them with the mechanisms of equity.
Amnesty International also indicated in its annual report that women continued to face discrimination in law and practice, and were inadequately protected against domestic and other gender-based violence. Women continued to be required by law to obtain the permission of a male guardian before getting married, travelling, undertaking paid employment or enrolling in higher education. Amnesty International expressed its regret that the Kingdom has not implemented the recommendations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) submitted to it in 36/2008. The Special Rapporteur on violence against women pointed out to the absence of any institution overseeing the affairs related to women and gender equity and addressing these issues. She also noted that the Council of Ministers Resolution No. 63 issued in 2003, approves the establishment of a permanent high national committee specialized in women’s affairs but this committee were not present during her visit to the country in February 22/2008.
Amnesty International called on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to exercise equity among all citizens before the law as well as between men and woman with respect to the rights of citizenship, provide the women’s rights in the freedom of mobility, education, employment and marriage, protect such rights, and provide remedies for domestic violence.
It is to be noted that the male guardianship over adult women also contributes to the risk of exposure to domestic violence and makes it nearly impossible for survivors of domestic violence to avail themselves to protection or redress mechanism. Professional sociologists, doctors and lawyers, told the Human Rights Watch that it is almost impossible to abolish the man’s guardianship on women and children, unless by a judicial order which might be of a long term and the judicial authorities rarely treat women fairly and some cases succeed to won the lawsuits, while in other cases the guardianship of the torturer is preserved even if the guardian is characterized by a behavior involving abuse.
Even where permission of a male guardian is not mandatory or stipulated under the government’s own guidelines, some officials will ask for it, since the applied system in the kingdom transfers virtually all decision-making power to a woman’s guardian. Some officials ask women for their guardian’s consent even where no law or guideline require such consent since the current practice assumes women have no power to make their own decisions. For instance, several Saudi women and health professionals told Human Rights Watch that some hospitals require a guardian’s permission to allow women to undergo certain medical procedures and to be discharged.
The Saudi Women’s suffering with this regime and the claims to get rid of it completely have not been stated only in the International Organizations reports. In December last year, Suhaila Zein El Abidine Hammad, a member in the Saudi Association for Human Rights told the New Arab website that the Saudi woman is suffering a lot, especially that the regime considers her ineligible, arguing that it is unreasonable for a woman to be in the Shura (consultative) Council while she is banned from travelling unless upon the consent of her guardian. She added that we need laws which preserve women’s rights and dignity. The National Association member indicated that there is a wide contradiction in the regime. For instance, the woman is being treated as a fully competent human being when applying the penalties against her, but after that, she is treated again as an incomplete human being and is banned from leaving the “prison” without her guardian’s permission.
The main problem faced by the Saudi woman is that the male guardianship system enriched intuitionally, and from which all penalties faced by women, whether in political, economic, educational participation on the level of mobility in which the woman is the only one in the word whom the Driving authorities has banned her from driving. Whereas, the officials themselves, are recalling the International Society that they are awaiting the society to accept the idea of women’s rights before the government make reforms in laws and policies in this respect.
Women activists’ efforts to reach achievements:
Rejecting this stereotypical image for women in the Saudi society and considering them as marginalized and unaccustomed to interacting with the surroundings and the work places, women activists have fought entitlement battles with the authorities. They have also boldly expressed the concerns and aspirations of women since they are fully competent individuals having capacities and potentials and are able to express themselves in different manners. Many attempts and great efforts have been made and when the opportunity arouse, women proved themselves worthy of their demands.
Women who supported the Women2Drive campaign, launched in 2011 to challenge the prohibition on women driving vehicles, faced harassment and intimidation by the authorities, who warned that women drivers would face arrest. Some were arrested but released after a short period. In early December, Loujain al-Hathloul and Mayssa al-Amoudi, two supporters of the campaign, were arrested at the border with the United Arab Emirates for driving their cars. The authorities later brought terrorism-related charges against both women, who remained in detention at the end of the year.
At the Level of Political Contribution:
The late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud launched the municipal election for the first time in 2005 and vowed for the women’s participation prior to 2011 round. In the same year, he also declared a royal decree appointing 30 women to the Shura Council. The recent elections has witnessed a remarkable participation of women to vote and run as candidates. This has reflected the consciousness and awareness of the social contribution value. Despite the obstacles created by the Saudi authorities, women have passed the first step in which 21 women have passed in the municipal council membership. The ratio of women’s vote in local communities in Saudi Arabia has reached 81.6 % of the total voters in this round, who are estimated to 130 thousand voters. “This landmark achievement,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. “The government should fix the problems that are making it hard for women to participate and build on this progress to create momentum for further women’s rights reforms”.
As for the challenges encountered by women whether to vote or to run as candidates, local activists told the Human Rights Watch that women have faced a number of barriers in registration to vote. Elections officials set up single-sex voter registration center, but only one-third were for women. Many of the centers for women were far from where they lived and hard to find and reach because Saudi Arabia banned women from driving.
Saudi women also face many problems proving identity and residency. Whereas, registration regulation of candidates applied equally to men and women, women face greater difficulties in obtaining the necessary documents.
Concerning the reasons that detrimentally affected female candidates, the HRW report also stated that before the release of the final list of candidates, on November 29 which included 979 women, earlier news reports said that close to 1,071 women tried to apply as candidates, but that number dropped out because of the high cost of media campaign. Election officials imposed strict sex-segregation rules on both men and women during campaign elections. Authorities prohibited candidates from addressing members of the opposite sex other than through a designed spokesperson and required campaign offices to be sex-segregated. These regulations negatively affected female candidates, as the vast majority are men.
HRW report noted that the Saudi authorities should end all discriminatory restrictions on women’s exercise of their right to political contribution and end all forms of discrimination against women in law and in practice, including abolishing the male guardianship and sex segregation policies.
“Saudi women have faced significant barriers in their fight for their right to vote and run in the municipal council elections, but their participation on December 12 sends a strong signal to Saudi society that women are continuing the long march toward greater participation in public life”, Sara Leah Whitson said.
On the other hand, but related to the authorities endeavor and attempts to limit women’s political participation, is the exclusion of Noura Al-Fayez, Deputy Minister of girls’ education from holding her office upon royal decisions when King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud who took the helm, after she was the first woman to hold a political office as a deputy minister.
At the Labor Level:
A report from the Central Department of Statistic and Information on the workforce in the Kingdom in the first half of 2015, indicated that the Saudi Arabia’s rate of women in the workforce is 18%, which is considered one of the lowest in the world.
Human Right Watch also noticed in the summary submitted to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) that some legislative reforms were implemented increasing women’s rights in the workforce by empowering women to work in specific fields such as clothing stores, but, although these reforms represent important steps forward yet their efficacy is restricted due to the male guardianship system over female.
Contrary to what is being reiterated by high-ranking officials about the reason for the law rate of women in the workforce, the latest of which was the statement of the Deputy Crown who considered that the issue is related to the culture of woman in the countries and that she needs more time to accustom herself to the idea of work, statistics came to support what have been stated in the summary statement that since some reforms were made, the number of Saudi women working in the private sector increased to a rate of 670 % during the past four years only. That is an average of approximate high annual rate of 16.5 %. According to the numbers issued from the Social Security four years ago, the number of Saudi women working in the private sector and various fields reached 70 thousand Saudi women, while this number increased to more than 468 thousand Saudi women until the first half of the year 2015.
As well as, in 2012, when the Labor Department issued financial aids to unemployed youth, women accounted for 86% of the total applicants, despite the restrictions on the active economic participation of women, such as the forced sex segregation, the ban on women driving, and the requirement of guardian’s permission. However, women insisted on joining the labor market available to her, even though it is limited to three main activities which are the functions of education, household activities and health (according to the Central Department of Statistics report for 2015).
In the above summary, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) noted that women are still unable to access to certain professions, particularly the legal and judicial professions and that sex segregation in the workplaces is being reinforced. Amnesty International regrets that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has not implemented the recommendation of the Committees on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women submitted to it in 2008. The joint paper and Human Rights Watch noted that female lawyers are not entitled to obtain practice licenses, despite an amendment allowing them to do so, and they have been granted the right to obtain practice licenses, but this decision does not appear to have been implemented.
Article 13 of the Basic Law stipulates the government’s responsibility in educating the citizens without discrimination and helping them to acquire necessary knowledge and skills to be active in the community. Yet, the guardian’s permission to be enrolled in education is required and Law does not punish or criminalize parents for refusing or neglecting to register their children for education. However, mothers are not entitled to enroll their children in education as fathers can do. Besides women are required to obtain the approval and company of the male guardian when submitting to scholarships abroad.
In a negative step which reinforced the women’s concerns about the authorities at the level of education, the Saudi Ministry of Education decided in November 2015 to abolish the mandatory scholarship for the female university lecturers and teaching assistants in the fields that are available in Saudi universities.
Education Minister Azzam Al-Dakhil instructed the universities in the Kingdom not to enroll female lecturers and teaching assistants into the scholarship programs to study abroad if the desired fields are available in the universities of Saudi Arabia, while keeping this requirement for the unavailable fields. He also called these universities to encourage the female teaching assistants and lectures to continue their studies abroad in the company of their mehram (male family member) throughout the scholarship period.
The decision has been taken following the demands of many religious figures; the latest was from Grand Mufti and Head of the Council of Senior Scholars, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh who send the minster a letter asking him to stop the enrolment of girls into the scholarship programs to study abroad.
In the end, the Saudi Organization for Human Rights and Freedom (SAORF) points out that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has joined the CEDAW in September 2000, agreed on 37 recommendations submitted by several countries in terms of women’s and children’s rights and accepted them fully in the UPR. The Kingdom has also stated with the start of the 28th session of the Human Rights Council on March 2, that the concerned government authorities have been assigned to implement the recommendations approved by the Kingdom during the second session of the UPR.
Accordingly, the Saudi Organization for Rights and Freedoms calls on the Saudi Authorities to respect its international obligations and activate the issued decisions, which aims to protect women’s rights in Kingdom, particularly the commitment to what have been approved by it in the recommendations of CEDAW submitted to it in 2008.
The Organization considers that it is time for the Saudi Authorities to implement more reforms and end all forms of discrimination against women in law and practice, including abolishing the male guardianship and sex segregation policies.
It also calls on the Saudi authorities to put an end to all discriminatory restrictions on women’s exercise of their right to political participation.
SAORF considers that the most suppressive practice is that the Saudi women is ruled by her male guardian who must grant her permission before obtaining a passport, marrying or attending the university.
The Organization also includes recommendations to its claims submitted to the concerned authorities regarding the Saudi women’s status presented to the Human Rights Council during the UPR in 2013, namely:
- The need to take urgent measures to increase the rate of women’s access to decision-making positions, to reach a minimum rate of 30% in all public offices and posts.
- The abolition of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the male institutional guardian system as a precondition for women to obtain her ID card or proof it, documentation, education, health care, work, and other related matters.
- The gender segregation policy should be reconsidered and an official should not refuse to grant the female citizens services or resources based on the gender segregation policy, especially when no alternatives are available to women.
- Women’s eligibility and independency should be unconditionally supported, including lifting the ban of driving, and authorizing unconditional ownership and renting, which are considered important and essential to the women’s security and safety.
- The registration of the individual civil status should be a priority in order to bring women on equal footing in marriage and family. A common authority should be enacted in lieu of the exclusive authority granted to men to determine the destiny of the family and the lives of children.