Saudi women challenges and successes

Mar 9, 2014

“Equality for Women is Progress for All” (Photo by: MOFA)

Major social, political and economic developments have influenced the role of Saudi women. While progress remains slow, the truth is that Saudi women are achieving an incredible amount of success despite all the challenges in the country. Remarkable progress has been achieved in the Kingdom in the status of women in education, employment, and health as well. 

This year, the International Women's Day (IWD), which is marked on March 8 every year, celebrates “Equality for Women is Progress for All”. In different developing nations, including Saudi Arabia, change is definitely taking place. The focus of the celebrations of the IWD ranges from general celebration of respect, appreciation and love towards women to a celebration for women's economic, political, and social achievements. The past few years have been amazingly successful for women.  

Clearly, the directions of Ninth Development Plan represents the efforts made to promote improvements in the status of women and in enabling them to participate in economic and social development. The Plan includes objectives and policies that address issues relevant to development of women’s status in various areas, such as education, health, social care and employment.

In addition, the Plan included an entire chapter on women and the family, which sets specific targets to build on the progress made with respect to empowerment of women, leading to further strengthening of women’s role in family and society, as well as their contribution to economic activities.

Although women were absolutely nonexistent in the political organization of Saudi Arabia, in January 2013, King Abdullah’s appointment of 30 women to the consultative Shoura Council in decrees announced marked a historic first as he sustained his reforms push with deliberate empowerment of women. 

Saudi women have long waited to be allowed full-membership in the all-male bastion, instead of being mere consultants, and their hopes of being part of the Kingdom’s growth has been finally realized.

The decree gave women a 20 percent quota in the Shoura Council, a body appointed by the king to advise him on policies and legislation.

In May last year, the Shoura Council voted for a draft law on violence against women to be submitted to Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah.

The proposed law includes 17 articles that define the different protections against abuse in its various forms and the legal action that can be taken against those accused of such offenses, in addition to calling for more public awareness on the concept of abuse and its implications.

The draft law stipulates a punishment of imprisonment and a fine for those proven guilty of abuse. It suggests imprisonment of one month to one year and a fine of SR5,000 to SR50,000, according to local media reports. However, the law has not been passed as of yet.

According to the UN, up to 70 percent of women experience violence in their lifetime.

Other social changes included two female athletes participating in London 2012 Olympic Games. Sarah Attar completed the 800m heat in 2 minutes, 44 seconds and Wojdan Shahrkhani who competed in the +78kg round of 32 judo match. They both received support not only locally but also internationally, marking their participation as historic and a step forward for Saudi women. 

In addition, women were able to face many social challenges and take advantage of judicial reforms. In November 2013, the Ministry of Justice decided to allow women to practice as lawyers in courts. Even though women have been allowed to study law since 2006, they were not allowed to practice until last year.

In January 2014, Bayan Al-Zahran has opened the first female lawyer’s office in Saudi Arabia in what is being seen as a major step for Saudi women seeking legal advice and help. Bayan was also one of the first Saudi women lawyers to be issued license to practice law in the Kingdom.

Bayan became the first Saudi woman lawyer when she appeared at the General Court in Jeddah for the first time in November last year to defend a client. She had been working for years as a legal consultant after she graduated with a degree in Law from King Abdul Aziz University in 2008. Since then, she represented a number of people in criminal and civil cases as well as family disputes.

She received her law licence after completing a law degree and training for years in all legal aspects. Consequently, she began to establish an office and form a team to work with her who is currently working as legal advisors.

She believes what prevents women in Saudi Arabia from getting their full rights is the fact that not women are not aware of the law system and are ignorant to their own rights. Also, submitting to social pressure, which views women as rebellious when asking for their rights.

Since the law firm was opened, she received several cases, which required her presence in courts. “I attended several sessions in administrative courts, commercial departments, the General Court and the civil department,” Bayan said.  

She continued saying, “Women lawyers are equal to male lawyers in rights and duties as we are under the umbrella of one system.” Conditions to obtain the license are the same for men and women and include a university degree in law and three years of training.

According to UNDP’s Human Development Report in 2011, Saudi women play an important role in investment and business administration in various economic activities. The number of women-owned registered commercial enterprises by the end of 2010 was over 47.4 thousand, most of them small and medium-size enterprises, with around 66.2% engaged in wholesale and retail trade and construction, and the rest in industry, mining, petroleum, power generation, water extraction, agriculture, finance and business services, and miscellaneous services.

The Central Department of Statistics and Information (CDSI) recently released Quarterly Unemployment Rates (15 years and above) for the first quarter of 2013 which stated male joblessness is 2.9% and female 22.1%. As for 2012, statistics for women unemployment rose from 34.0% to 35.7% from the first to fourth quarter while unemployment for men dropped, from 6.9% to 6.1%.

Saudi women unemployment rate was already high in the first quarter 34%, but it went up to nearly 36% in the fourth quarter, increasing by nearly five percent in that interval. In 1999, the rate of unemployment for women was 16% and remained so for years until it reached 36% in the fourth quarter of 2012. 

Most of the challenges standing in the way of women progress and equality is the male guardian law that puts women under the complete control of men, depriving them of their basic rights handling their own lives. According to the law, a male guardian controls a woman’s right to education, employment, the use of transportation, litigation, medical treatment, the holding of ID documents and issuance of passports, the execution of private and governmental contracts, and discharge from rehabilitation or detention institutions. 

Another major problem, women are not allowed to drive, which deprives them from their right to commute freely. Women are usually driven around by family members and personal drivers, or are forced to use some other type of private transportation. Until now, Saudi Arabia has not provided any information on whether it would allow women to drive or not despite the ongoing online campaigns by activists demanding the right to drive.

While Saudi Arabia is tiptoeing on women progress, the road is long to go. Not engaging women in the development process of the country will have negative economical social and political consequences. In the International Women’s Day, equality for women is definitely progress for all.