Saudi Arabia basks in its surging influence, strengthened relationship with the US, and economic initiatives to diversify its economy so as to reduce oil revenue reliance. In this process, we can list its support for terrorism, Yemen’s starving population, and suppression of speech, but rather we will look at their silent population; women. Much wealth allows Saudi Arabia to fund benevolent educational programs for their population to study abroad, learn from fine institutions and take what was learned for use in their homeland with the pursuit to better the state. Men and women alike are eligible for these programs. However, despite having an educated society and striving for an equitable place with western states (and influence), Saudi Arabia is listed on Human Rights Watch as supporting abuses through their legal system and culture, particularly against women. So what are these restrictions on women that translate to human rights violations?
Male Guardianship System:
- adult women must obtain permission to travel, marry, or exit prison
- required to provide guardian consent in order to work or access healthcare
- cannot rent an apartment or file legal claims
- all women remain banned from driving cars
- disparate opportunities for women in sports and physical education
- though as recent as Rio Olympics did have 4 women participate
With increased pressure from the global community and its own efforts to be seen on somewhat equal stature as great powers, Saudi Arabia has announced possible changes to directly benefit women. King Salman ordered a review of the laws, which may yield a pivot regarding guardianship. This review will likely not sit well with hard line conservatives who have had large influence on the politics of Saudi Arabia. However, as part of its economic diversification program for 2030, change is necessary. Loosening the restrictions on women may not directly result in economic gains, but it certainly has the opportunity to do so is the assumption. To note, the Shura Council has been less strict with applying guardianship laws for job applicants. If assumptions come to fruition, women may be driving in the next few years as the King sees that this is a basic human right in the search for economic stability. Looking at the unemployment for men and women alone (2000 – 2016), it is visible that diverting to a new way ahead is absolutely critical to for women, and Saudi Arabia as a whole (World Bank).
It is hard for me to believe this pivot comes from a warm place in anyone’s heart. Capitalism and realism play a huge role in Saudi Arabia’s shift. They know for a fact they need to diversify and they must do so by utilizing their female population. This is especially true if they hope to continue flourishing with Western nations who have a higher standard for women socially and economically. While Saudi Arabia is no beacon of fairness or human rights by any means, some progression is better than none. Women have been subjugated long enough in Saudi Arabia, so while for western women small changes are laughable when compared to the liberties we enjoy, they are massive to a society that is embedded in archaic religious doctrine that leave little to no room for change.