There are issues with women’s rights everywhere. These issues include, but are certainly not limited to; the ever-present wage gap, the continued effect of sexism encountered by women in their day to day lives, and, of course, the fact that in Saudi Arabia women still need the permission of their male guardian to do pretty much anything.
It’s a fact that women’s rights in places like Saudi Arabia are horrific. We hear shocking news stories all the time, most often about the driving ban, which is perhaps the most well known issue in the UK and US. But the human rights issue goes far beyond that. The guardian system means that women are assigned a male ‘guardian’- usually their father, brother or husband – and this ‘guardian’ basically has total control over the woman’s life. Women can’t study, work, travel, even go to the doctor without the permission of their guardian. Good grief. It all sounds a bit Victorian, doesn’t it?
My question, though, is about the cultural restraints on women. Sure, there is legislation in place regarding the guardian system, and the driving ban, and we know Saudi Arabia is not hesitant to punish harshly for breaches. But does a cultural aspect play into it at all? Even if the legislation was slackened, would women feel comfortable making the most of new freedoms?
The answer, according to the wife of a Saudi journalist, is no.
In June, in one of my classes at school, I got the opportunity to listen to a Saudi man – a journalist. He worked for a magazine – talking about issues in Saudi Arabia. At first glance, he seemed reasonably progressive. He spoke about how he wished women’s rights were more like how they are in the UK, where he apparently spends a lot of time. Yet scratch the surface and his answers to certain questions seemed slightly evasive and indirect. And one of the things he said which surprised me most was about his wife.
He seems like a nice husband, don’t get me wrong. His wife travels with him to the UK, and when in the UK seems to enjoy all the freedoms of a UK woman, like being allowed to drive, for example. Yet her husband told us that she had said, despite being perfectly happy to drive in the UK, that she wouldn’t drive in Saudi Arabia even if it was legal – and even if, 5 years after it became legal, it was a widely accepted practice.
Hmmm. That just doesn’t fly with me. I’m sure, of course, that there are women who wouldn’t feel comfortable, initially, driving. But after it became commonly accepted, I’m pretty sure women would gladly be driving about, enjoying their new (and overdue) freedom. In addition, the prolific campaign Women2Drive which asks that the ban on women driving be lifted (started by Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi woman and activist) has garnered a lot of public support, not only overseas but, more tellingly, in the Saudi community, with many women driving cars in towns in Saudi Arabia in protest of the ban. So clearly, Saudi women do want to drive.
Another statistic reflecting the relative progressiveness of women in Saudi Arabia is the fact that 60% of university graduates in Saudi Arabia are Saudi women. That’s right, 60%. Saudi women make up the majority of graduates – showing a keen thirst for learning and knowledge, and the gaining of skills – yet they only constitute 18.6% of the nation’s workforce (as of 2011). What happens between graduating and a career? Where do all the intelligent, capable, eager Saudi women go? The most likely answer is, their male guardian won’t let them work – they’ve had their chance to go and study, and now they should be satisfied with staying in the home where they belong.
Yet even the fact that they want to study shows that Saudi women want to progress. They don’t want to stay locked in the same rights-restricting jam. Give them the freedom to do these things themselves – no male permission needed – and they will. And the country will be better for it.