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Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia


Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia

Women shop in a mall on Nov. 16, 2007, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

(Photo by Salah Malkawi/ Getty Images)
Much attention has been drawn to the plight of women in Saudi Arabia thanks to both social media campaigns waged in order to attain greater rights and by King Abdullah's efforts to buck the more conservative religious elements by incrementally allowing women more rights. But what is women's place in Saudi society as deemed by law and custom?

Role in family life: Attitudes toward women come not only from the strict Salafi Sunni Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, but from the patriarchal customs of the nomadic tribes in which family "honor" is upheld and segregation of the sexes is paramount. Women are told that their place is in the home while men are supposed to work. All women are required to have a male guardian, such as a father or a husband, to give permission in cases such as medical procedures or legal proceedings.

Marriage: Saudi officials have recommended a minimum marriage age of 17 for girls, though there are no laws protecting child brides in marriage contracts often set up without the woman's consent. Children born of the marriage legally belong to the father. Official permission is needed to marry non-Muslim men.

Covering up: Women in Saudi Arabia are required to cover their body around men when outside the home. This includes a body-covering abaya with hijab, or covering all of the face except for the eyes with a niqab. The cover-ups can't be colorful or draw attention with adornments.

Driving: Women are prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia, the only country to have such a law. To accomplish tasks such as shopping or going to and from work, many families hire drivers, though they are supposed to only travel about with a male relative. Saudi women have gotten behind the wheel and taken spins to post online in a protest against the law.

Education: Sixty percent of students in Saudi Arabia's universities are women, though the literacy rate in the kingdom lags behind men. The same sex segregation that pervades every other segment of life, from restaurants to public transportation, divides women from men during their studies. Yet steps were taken toward pulling down this when the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology opened in 2009 - not only a co-ed university, but an institution where women aren't required to be veiled in classes. About 15 percent of students are Saudi.

Employment: Even with the large number of women in higher education, only about 5 to 15 percent hold jobs. Work is allowed for women if it doesn't interfere with their household duties or is needed for family support. sex segregation in the workplace is encouraged but not required in the private sector. Women have protested oddities that work restrictions have led to, namely men working in women's lingerie stores. Typical professions for women include medicine, banking and teaching.

Politics: On Sept. 25, 2011, King Abdullah announced that women would have the right to vote and run for office in municipal elections in 2015. Yet the more liberal city of Jeddah led the way with this effort; in 2005, 17 women ran for the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and also participated in the vote. Two women were elected to the 18-member board. King Abdullah took the voting decree a step further by also affirming that women would be eligible for appointment to the Saudi Consultative Assembly, or Shura Council.

Legal: In court, women often must grant permission for men to testify on their behalf, and the testimony of two women equals that of one man.

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