Saudi Arabia is one of the countries where gender differences are most profound.
Women must always be under the guardianship of a man, be it their father or their husband, and they have fewer rights than them.
At the same time, men and women who are not related cannot speak to each other. It is prohibited. Therefore, schools are segregated by sex and public areas always have separate spaces: tables at restaurants, in the queues to pay, in the waiting rooms of hospitals, in gyms…
When they are in public, women must be covered to their ankles with a black abaya. Coloured tunics are still not seen well in the more conservative areas.
The religious police are responsible for making sure these rules are met, for “respect of divine law.”
Hay muchas cosas que a las mujeres no les permiten hacer en Arabia Saudita. Afortunadamente mañana se acaba una pic.twitter.com/77epMKx7Hw
— pictoline (@pictoline) December 11, 2015
Segregation at work
Saudi women are beginning to enter the working world bit by bit. If they want to work, legally they no longer need the permission of their father or husband to do so. However, that does not mean they do it.
Saudi society is a patriarchal society where man dominates and makes the decisions. That’s why, although many women want to work, they don’t dare to question their male relatives and they stay at home, because that is what decent women do.
In factories, men and women work separately, in different facilities. Men and women who are managers can work together, although a part of society does not approve of this and there are women who would not accept a job in which they had to deal with men.
In the final years of his reign, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz launched a series of open policies towards women having more freedom.
In addition to allowing women to vote, Abdalá wanted women to be included in the Shura Council (an advising body to the king). In recent years, women have been able to study degrees other than teaching or medicine (doctors are needed to treat female patients).
In January 2018, Saudi women were able to enter a stadium for the first time to watch a football match.
Una imagen de felicidad y libertad. Ayer, las mujeres pudieron asistir por primera vez a un espacio público a ver fútbol en Arabia Saudí. pic.twitter.com/twKPjQ2oTl
— Revista Líbero (@revistalibero) January 14, 2018
And in June 2018, a reform that allows women to drive came into effect. Compared with the situation of women in other countries, these are small gestures, but they represent an important advance for the country.
Social networks have also driven change. Thanks to the internet, women in Saudi Arabia can see what women in the rest of the world are like and how they behave: they also want to study, drive and work outside the home.
For part of the Saudi population, the challenge is achieving a balance between modernity and religion. Increasing women’s rights and, at the same time, respecting the values and traditions of Islam.
However, activists and human rights defenders criticise the gravity of the situation in a country where it seems that even a robot has more rights than a woman. Sophia is an android with artificial intelligence that does not need to cover her head with a veil and is able to talk freely with men.
Saudi Arabia is a very rich country thanks to oil, and that translates into great influence in international politics. That’s why it was elected as a member of the UN Women’s Rights Commission, despite being one of the countries where women have fewer rights.
The global struggle for gender equality faces one of its greatest challenges in Saudi Arabia. International pressure and support for Saudi activists will be key to making women’s rights a reality.