Veiled Kingdom

05.11.134:45 AM ET

Baby Steps Toward Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia

Momentum is building in the kingdom toward laws that would allow women to drive and would recognize domestic violence. But it’s just a start, says Vivian Salama.

When King Abdullah succeeded his late half-brother to become ruler of Saudi Arabia eight years ago, many believed he brought with him an air of reform. Known for his relatively moderate views, Abdullah promised to achieve a great many changes for women, who were barred from driving and were required by law to seek the approval of a male “guardian” to work, travel abroad and, in some cases, to undergo surgery.

Muslim women, the king said in a 2011 speech, have given “opinions and advice since the era of Prophet Muhammad” and “we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with Sharia,” or Islamic law, the octogenarian ruler added.

This week, as Saudi Arabia marked the eighth anniversary since King Abdullah ascended the throne, according to the Islamic Hijri calendar, the government announced that it would lift a ban on sports at private girls’ schools across the kingdom. It comes weeks after the government made another concession—lifting a ban on females riding bicycles and buggies, albeit in the presence of a male guardian. The decisions were hailed by many reformers as positive “baby steps,” but several major issues continue to stall the women’s-rights movement in Saudi Arabia from celebrating true progress, including the right to drive, the right to operate without male approval or supervision, as well as the right to win custody of a child or legally defend herself in cases of domestic violence.

Women have been fighting for equality in Saudi Arabia long before the rumble of discontent erupted in countries like Egypt and Tunisia. Since regional uprisings began in 2011, the Saudi government, apprehensive that its citizens would join in the call for change, has tried to placate the opposition with concessions in the form of housing allowances, government handouts, and new social liberties. But women say the time has come for real change.

“All these baby steps do count, but they are not enough,” says Aiyah Saihati, a Saudi businesswoman and writer. There is a need for “removing any constraints that make [women] unequal to men in terms of self-determination, be it the need for guardian permits for education, travel, hospitalization, as well as being treated with full citizenship, as men, in rights to housing or citizenship for her children.”

Women in Saudi Arabia have come a long way since the story of Rania Al Baz first made headlines. The popular television anchorwoman was among the first to break a taboo by going public with her own battle with domestic violence—photographs of her severely battered face making headlines worldwide in 2004.

According to the Riyadh-based National Family Safety Program, one in every six women is abused verbally, physically, or emotionally every day in Saudi Arabia, and 90 percent of the abusers are usually husbands or fathers. Last week, the first public-awareness campaign on domestic violence was released in Saudi Arabia—in Arabic and English—urging victims to stand up and seek help. The campaign, released by the Riyadh-based King Khalid Foundation, depicts a woman with a visible black eye despite being cloaked in a burqa. The caption reads, in Arabic, "What's Hidden Is Greater” and, in English, “Some Things Can’t Be Covered.”

Despite this groundbreaking campaign, there remains no legislation to legally help female victims of domestic violence, according to Human Rights Watch researcher Adam Coogle. “There is no penal code that protects women and girls from domestic violence, marital rape is not considered a crime in Saudi Arabia, and there is no legal protection that any women can cling to in the face of abuse,” he says.

However, not all Saudi women believe that abolishing the guardian system is the right path. The most significant example is a 2009 campaign launched by Rawda Al Youssef called “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me” in which she promotes the benefits of the male-guardian system. Critics of the law say campaigns like this only reinforce stereotypes and create hurdles for the women’s-rights movement.

“This is an embarrassment as it only perpetuates our presumed weak nature,” says Rawan Al-Shammari, 25, a doctor from the eastern province Al Khobar. “For any significant change to take effect, the male-guardian law must be lifted. Women must be independent, and the religious scholars must not try to justify their control through religion.”

There have been several small but symbolic victories since 2011. Last year, women in the kingdom celebrated a ruling by King Abdullah allowing them to participate in municipal elections in 2015 and become members of the consultative Shura Council—a decision long overdue, according to many rights groups that claim the decree is more emblematic than practical.

In April, the justice ministry also licensed Arwa al-Hujaili of Jeddah as a legal trainee, making her the first woman to train as a lawyer in Saudi Arabia. However, the journey has not been smooth sailing for al-Hujaili. Saudi judges have the right to remove a lawyer from a case, with no regulations against gender discrimination. Some judges even continue to segregate men and women in their courtrooms.

The Ministry of Labor answered a long-awaited call last year to allow women to work in lingerie shops across the kingdom, a role traditionally held by men prior to a 2011 decree. While the move certainly lifted a social stigma, many point to the economic practicality of allowing women to take on these jobs. More than 28,000 women applied when the ministry first announced the change, according to government statistics. As of February, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (commonly dubbed “morality police”) even started policing lingerie shops to ensure the ban on male employees is being implemented.

And while there are a number of women who argue for the continuation of a driving ban in the kingdom, many say that change is imperative for economic prosperity in light of the country’s population explosion, shrinking growth in wages, and fewer employment opportunities. “Families…cannot afford to continue to fund salaries, housing, and travel expenses of drivers,” says businesswoman and writer Saihati.

Even members of the Saudi royal family are coming out in support of a woman’s right to drive. In April, Saudi Arabian billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, the king’s nephew, said allowing women to drive makes economic sense. “Women driving will result in dispensing with at least 500,000 foreign drivers,” the prince wrote on his Twitter account. “That has an economic and social impact for the country.”