Important Steps Forward for Women in Saudi Arabia

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

October 4, 2017

Last week Saudi Arabia announced the end of a longstanding ban on female drivers. The decree has been greeted with enthusiasm by regional observers, many of whom have been quick to note the economic dividends that such a move can bring about. Judging from the announcement of a number of other dramatic reforms coming out of Saudi Arabia, it seems that the monarchy’s commitment to these changes is more than cosmetic. At the same time that the driving ban was lifted, various government bodies announced that Saudi women could now issue fatwas, would take senior positions, and new laws and real measures protecting them against various forms of sexual harassment.


Many, including the Khaleej Times editorial staff, see the decision as a major shift and a strong signal in favor of a greater role for women in Saudi society, with more to come: “It is clear that Saudi Arabia, the largest economy in the Arab world, is witnessing tectonic changes in society, which many consider deeply conservative and rigid…. This decree was based on collective conscience — women are strong, they deserve to enjoy the same rights as men and must be allowed to take major decisions for themselves. Societies progress when individual rights are respected, and Saudi society is moving to a new era in a hurry, which is remarkable…. This step could have positive trickle down effects on the economy with more women coming out not just to drive but also to work. The country’s task to wean itself of foreign labor is headed in the right direction; this move could also help kickstart the social reform process.”

This sentiment was shared by Hassan Hassan who, in a recent op-ed for The National, suggested that while initially slow-paced, such changes portend greater shifts in Saudi society: “The circumstances surrounding the historic move suggest that a new drive for reform is underway, and it is real. Clerics who once thought they had the immunity, or even the authority, to comment on public policy issues are facing a seemingly serious pushback. These changes came amid a slow process of easing the grip of conservative clergy in the public sphere. In a landmark decision in April last year, authorities stripped the power of religious police to stop and arrest people after wide criticism of their aggressive enforcement of what they deemed to be sharia standards related to dress code and behavior in public. Recent moves seem to be more intensive and targeted, aimed at individuals perceived to be standing in the way of a reform push.”

Ahmed Al-Jarallah opines on the pages of Arab Times that regional cultural attitudes toward women have had a deleterious effect on the economies of the countries in the region: “[I]n some countries, religion is applied in favor of worn-out norms, especially in preventing half of the population of a community to participate in economic growth and work…. They lagged behind and experienced crises not only because such traditions went against human nature and religious teachings; but they superseded everything. This is the reason why many Arab countries have been suffering for decades…. In every attempt to get rid of worn-out restrictions, the fanatics undermined efforts to cancel the role of half of the society in order to maintain the dominance of men, and not as they brag and claim that they are doing so in respect for women…. the Kingdom today needs support all its people — men and women — in its growth movement. Based on this belief, the decisions taken in the past two years were aimed at preparing the people for the implementation of Saudi’s 2030 vision which will lead to a huge shift in all aspects.”

Asharq Alawsat’s Salman Al-Dossary agrees that the decision to allow women to drive is not merely political and that it will go a long way toward improving the Kingdom’s international image: “I don’t agree with those who describe this decision as political in the first place. Any political decision on a community-linked cause first needs a suitable environment for it to be accepted based on cultural and intellectual consensus. Had it been purely a political decision, it would have been implemented long time ago. The problem throughout the past period was that some movements continued to exploit the matter and exaggerate the consequences of issuing such a decision…. We can say that this decision is better than dozens of billions of dollars worth media campaigns in the West. Its positive outcome won’t be restricted to one day, month or year but the kingdom will yield its positive influence for several years to come.”

But journalist Baria Alamuddin, writing for Arab News, notes that the royal decree can only accomplish so much, suggesting that societal views and attitudes toward women will have to shift for real change to take place: “Cultural readjustment will take time as female drivers go from being something radical and unconventional to becoming the norm. Often it is other women reinforcing the preconception that driving is unbecoming and morally suspect. The strength of tribal (rather than religious) dynamics should not be underestimated; compelling women to behave in certain ways to uphold tribal honor…. But even if all discriminatory laws were abolished tomorrow, there is a deeper issue about how society views women. This is particularly acute in more remote and fiercely traditional areas…. This decision makes the ‘other half’ of Saudi society’s access to the workplace easier, and guarantees their role in the nation’s continued development. This is simply the beginning.”

Societal attitudes aside, it seems that the Saudi government is set on a course of reform that goes beyond doing away with the driving ban for women. In Arab News Aisha Fareed points out that in addition to the decree the Saudi king has also “ordered the interior minister to criminalize sexual harassment…. The latest royal decree stated that sexual harassment posed a great threat to women and families, and was ‘in contradiction of Islamic principles’…. In a 2014 study, nearly 80 percent of women aged 18 to 48 said they had been exposed to some form of sexual harassment…. Many women took to Twitter to express their support for the new law, overjoyed at the prospect of more freedom and safety.”

Also according to Arab News, that order comes at the same time as news that “For the first time in Saudi Arabia, women authorized to issue fatwas… Saudi women are now allowed to issue fatwas following a vote in the Shoura Council. The historic move was approved by 107 votes and ends 45 years of only specialist men being able to issue fatwas in the Kingdom. The female muftis are to be chosen by a royal decree…. Women members of the Council last March had demanded that the issuing of fatwas should not be limited to men, through the involvement of female academies specialized in the study of jurisprudence in issuing fatwas.”

And finally, in yet another recent development, Hurriyet Daily News reports on the appointment of a Saudi woman to a “senior government post for first time…. Twenty-four hours after King Salman issued a decree end the ban, the government announced that a woman had been appointed as assistant mayor of Al Khubar governorate. Eman Al-Ghamidi was given the post ‘as part of plan to boost the number of females in leadership positions in line with Vision 2030,’ the Center for International Communication at the Ministry of Culture and Information said in a statement…. The Saudi government has said Vision 2030, a vast plan of economic and social reforms, will raise women’s share of the labor market to 30 percent from 22 percent currently.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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