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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Female Empowerment in Saudi Arabia

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

The rights of women in Saudi Arabia have been restricted throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries due to austere interpretation and hence, application of their law. [1]Government laws, traditional customs of the Arabian Peninsula and the Wahhabi and Hanbali schools of Sunni Islam define the rights of women in Saudi Arabia. [2] Traditionally women did not have the right to drive, vote in elections or stand in political office.

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report [3], Saudi Arabia ranks on 141 out of 144 countries for gender parity.

Hence, when the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) elected Saudi Arabia to the UN Commission on the Status for women for 2018-2022, the move was severely criticized by the International Community because women in Saudi Arabian have struggled for rights as basic as education and employment. Women in Saudi Arabia comprise of 34.4 percent of the country’s native workforce only, as of 2019. Nevertheless, [4]some reformations in the form of transformation from the “ultra-conservative Islam” towards a “moderate Islam” have been observed towards the end of 2017 that are claimed to alter the position of women in Saudi Arabian society. This article will examine the recent developments in social, economic and political light and conclude that there is still a long way for the women of Saudi Arabia to go, in terms of empowerment by gaining their rights.

Recent developments include the lifting of ban from voting as King Abdullah, [5]dismissing the objections of religious scholars, authorized the women to not only vote in the 2015 local elections but also to be appointed to the Consultative Assembly. [6]Developments in education are reflected through the fact that in 2011, the number of female university graduates was higher than males and the female literacy rate was approximately 91 percent – a figure lower than male literary but still the highest in last 40 years.

Another landmark improvement was observed in 2013 as the average age of marriage for women increased to 25 years. Furthermore, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman commanded that women be allowed the entrance to government services without the requirement of consent from their guardian. [7]Besides this, by lifting the world’s only ban on female drivers, he issued an order allowing women to drive.

The recent rise of women in workplace is the result of all these changes. What is more is that due to the guardianship laws, women could never tell when their husband divorced them but due to Supreme Court issuing a law in January 2019, women can now receive a message from the court when they are getting divorced. Furthermore, laws regarding granting the right to divorce or marry without the permission of guardian were passed in August 2019, empowering women further. A number of more significant steps were taken in 2019 such as allowing women to work for higher officer ranks in the military. In addition to this, a royal decree was published in the Saudi official gazette, Um al-Qura. This decree aimed to loosen the travel restrictions on Saudi Arabian Women.

On the other hand, many argue that these reforms, put into place [8]following the Arab Spring against authoritarianism in the Middle East, were not as successful as they seemed. In fact, as of 2018, the highest political position held by a woman in Saudi Arabia was the Vice Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Even though the Crown Prince gained praises from the International Community for his “process of reformation in ultra-conservative Islamic practices” that would potentially lead to the transformation in the position of women in the country, alongside removing the barriers they face in public life, [9]the entire process needs to be reexamined with respect to its impact on the daily experiences of women, for it to be reconciled with the concept of ‘female empowerment.’

Furthermore, it can be argued that these given reforms are not standalone [10] Islamic changes. Rather, these reforms are actually part of the larger socio-economic evolution with the political and cultural implications. Their target is to increase the competitiveness of Saudi economy with an increase in the foreign economic integration. Hence, it wouldn’t be incorrect to proclaim that the [11]empowerment of women was not the real intention behind these reforms because the state-sanctioned gender regime in Saudi Arabia based on male supremacy and discrimination depriving women of their basic human rights is still prevalent.

The most pertinent factor to consider is that a comprehensive legal framework that is needed to achieve gender equality is still lacking. A legal framework is especially significant because the customary and traditional norms that exist in Saudi society are not in line with international norms and basic human rights without forgetting that these norms have overruling supremacy. Sharia law, in particular is a major obstacle to gender equality. [12]These recent reforms are expected to bring about superficial changes only because the kingdom refuses to abolish the system of male guardianship. It is because of this fundamental principle of gender inequality that the Saudi Arabian women will continue to face obstacles against their empowerment in their everyday life. [13]

The mahram system or the guardianship system requires women to receive the permission and approval of their guardian – a male, who could be their father, brother, husband, or even son, for some of the most crucial decisions of life.

These crucial decisions include the right to drive, travel, leave their families, work and open a bank account. Hence, it would not be incorrect to assert that instead of women, their guardians are empowered to make these decisions.

In conclusion, ranked at 141st out of 149 countries in 2018, it is not to be forgotten that Saudi Arabia has a very high Global Gender Gap score and the country has regressed in closing its gender gap if we compare it to last years.

Moreover, even though the number of working women in the private sector has increased by 130 percent between 2012 and 2016, the economic participation and opportunity index score, which is 145 out of 149, still remains behind its education and political empowerment indexes, which is 93 and 127 out of 149, respectively. This information indicates that without eliminating the main causes of gender inequality in Saudi Arabia, these particular reforms will only conform to the existing patriarchal limits. Moreover, even though the economic participation and opportunity index may improve in the coming years, women will continue to be underrepresented in most sectors of the economy and politics.

Khadija Khan (Middle East)


[1] Mona Al-Munaajjed, Women in Saudi Arabia Today (1st Ed, St Martin’s Press, 1997) 20

[2] ibid

[3] Aylin Topal, ‘Economic Reforms and women’s empowerment in Saudi Arabia’ (2019) 76 Women’s Studies International Forum 22

[4] ibid

[5] Kristine Beckerle, Boxed in women and Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system (1st Ed, Human Rights Watch, 2016) 15

[6] ibid

[7] Aylin Topal, ‘Economic Reforms and women’s empowerment in Saudi Arabia’ (2019) 76 Women’s Studies International Forum 27

[8] Guido Steinberg, ‘Leading the Counter-Revolution: Saudia Arabia and Arab Spring’ (2014) 7 German Institute for International and Security Affairs 5

[9] Lila Abu-Lughod, ‘Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others’ (2008) 104 American Anthropological Association 783

[10] Leila Ahmad, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (1st Ed, Yale University Press, 1992)

[11] Madawi Al-Rasheed, A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia (1st Ed, Cambridge University Press, 2013)

[12] Soraya Altorki, Women in Saudi Arabia: Ideology and Behavior Among the Elite (1st Ed, Riyadh: Arakan, 2010)

[13] Wizārat al-iʻlām, Women in Saudia Arabia: care, development, improvement (1st Ed, Riyadh: Arakan 2004)

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