Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia

Women in Saudi Arabia are less represented in political, social, economic and scientific fields than women in any other Arab or Muslim country. Women were barred from participating in the only municipal elections in the history of the Saudi State in 2005. They are prohibited from studying certain subjects in schools, such as chemistry and biology. They may not legally drive and must obtain “permission” from a male “guardian” to travel within or outside the country. Women must ride in the back of public buses, even when the buses are empty. Saudi girls are not allowed to play sports in schools, which, by Saudi health official admission, is causing health problems and staggering expenses. All marriages are arranged by male relatives. If a Saudi woman divorces her husband, she loses custody of her children over age six. Women have little or no freedom to effectively prosecute sexual abuse cases, being required to produce four witnesses. In court, a woman’s testimony is equivalent to half that of a man’s. These conditions violate women’s human rights and have devastating personal and social effects.

These exclusionary policies have created a dangerously imbalanced environment that is hurting Saudi society and Muslim women across the globe. Such policies favor the views of extremist-leaning segments in the Saudi society. CDHR promotes the empowerment of Saudi women to become equal partners in the democratic development process in Saudi Arabia. As activists, elected officials, and constituents, the contributions of women are crucial to building a strong and vibrant society that embraces tolerance and rejects extremism and terrorism. Empowering women in Saudi Arabia is a moral imperative and a powerful path to promoting progress, tolerance and democracy in the country.

The alliance between the Saudi ruling dynasty and its extremist religious allies is at the heart of Saudi exclusion and mistreatment of women. The royal family has traditionally used a conservative brand of Sunni Islam (Wahhabism) to justify its rule. Present-day Saudi Arabia was founded by an alliance between Muhammad ibn Saud, great grandfather of the current ruling dynasty, and Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, the founder and father of Wahhabism in the middle of the eighteen century.

Wahhabi religious police have free reign to enforce their interpretation of religious law, and Saudi women face severe restrictions in the political, economic, and social spheres. Women cannot directly write freely, or assemble and organize against inhumane and stifling restrictions. The system has stifled the development of the country and kept its citizens divided.

Increased participation by Saudi women will tilt the balance in favor of tolerant policies that are in the best interest of all Saudi citizens and the international community. Women’s inclusion in political and civic life would unleash a wealth of talent that could increase domestic economic activity, empower competition, reduce unnecessary costs of social segregation, enrich cultural and civic development, and help foster democratic institutions, thereby weakening extremist influences in the country. With Saudi Arabia’s significant religious and economic influence regionally and globally, empowering women in Saudi Arabia will radically increase chances for democratic reforms in other Arab and Muslim societies worldwide.


More on Women's Rights from CDHR

Wajeha al-Huwaider, a courageous advocate for Saudi women's rights.

2008 Report from Human Rights Watch: Perpetual Minors

CDHR's campaign for women's rights in Saudi Arabia

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