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Women in Saudi Arabia are caught in a system of gender apartheid

By Elham Manea

No professional or vocational training, no visits to the doctor, no lawsuits without male approval: Yemeni-Swiss political scientist Elham Manea bemoans the plight of women in Saudi Arabia.

Women in Saudi Arabia wait for a taxi in Riyadh

I will never forget the words of my father when he turned down an offer to work at our Yemeni embassy in Saudi Arabia in the mid-80s. He simply said: “I have a daughter!”

His words came back to me this October 26, when more than 60 Saudi women’s activists got behind the wheels of their cars protesting against a ban on women driving in the kingdom. Their demand symbolized in a nutshell what it means for a woman to live in Saudi Arabia: perpetual minors in a system of gender apartheid.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that outlaws this right of driving. And yes, depriving a woman of the right to drive serves the purpose of controlling her physical mobility and hence independence. But focusing on the right to drive misses the whole spectrum of the issue.

Systematically treated as perpetual minors

Women in the Kingdom, a 2008 Human Rights Watch report maintains, are systematically treated as perpetual minors through a system instituted by the state that infringes on their basic human rights.

In other words, every adult Saudi woman, regardless of her economic or social status, must obtain permission from her male guardian to work, travel, study, seek medical treatment or marry. She is also deprived of making the most trivial decisions on behalf of her children. This system is supported by the imposition of complete sex segregation, which prevents women from participating meaningfully in public life.

Sex segregation is strictly monitored by the government’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (the religious police) in all workplaces with the exception of hospitals. Unlawful mixing between sexes leads to the arrest of the violators and criminal charges. The brutality of the members of this commission and the unequal punishments men and women receive when committing the same ‘crime of mixing’ was best described by the Saudi writer Samar Al Muqren in her novel “Ni’saa al Munkar – Women of the Abominable,” published in 2008, which she wrote based on her work as a journalist.

Reinforcing discriminatory gender roles

The ramifications of this system of male guardianship and sex segregation are felt by Saudi women in their daily lives. In the field of education, the general framework of education is tailored to reinforce discriminatory gender roles and what the authorities consider as suitable to “women’s nature and future role as wives and mothers.” In addition, women’s and girls’ access to education depends on the good will of male guardians, whose permission is essential for their educational enrollment. Sex segregation undermines women’s right to equality in education, especially when female university and professors are often relegated to unequal facilities with unequal academic opportunities.

In the field of employment, the Saudi labor code, which came into force in 2006, repeated a former stipulation decreeing that in line with article 4 of the code, which requires adherence to Sharia, “women shall work in all fields suitable to their nature” (article 149). The result is that Saudi women continue to be marginalized almost to the point of total exclusion from the Saudi workforce…

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