The fight for Women’s Rights is a movement that has been recognized throughout the entire world, but only a few countries have taken the steps to implement this movement. This progressive movement has been successful in the recent century and only continues to grow stronger as the voice of women throughout the globe is being heard in the ongoing struggle to fight for equality amongst a male dominated world. However, there are those few countries left throughout the globe that are struggling to move forward, especially those in the Middle East, including countries such as Saudi Arabia. This paper will examine the vastly growing tension with women’s rights in Saudi Arabia taking into consideration their form of government, religious contribution, cultural factors, and their battle to find a balance between the modernization and conserving their countries original values. This paper will provide historical examples, contexts, and a primary theoretical and empirical contribution of scholars, primary sources, articles, books, and journals.
The definition of Women’s rights is interpreted differently throughout the globe. In the United States women’s rights advocates strive for the same equality that men receive. That includes, and is not limited to the right to vote, equal pay, sex discrimination, domestic violence, and sexual equality, given the right to freely express themselves on a sexual level in deterrence of facing sexual predators. However, every continent and in every country within that continent, a woman faces a very different ordeal. In third world countries, the last concern is their political rights in terms of voting, but the need for their basic human rights is a widely concerned issue. Political rights for women in countries such as Saudi Arabia encounter a variety of problems as they are faced with many cultural and religious pressure that attribute and conflict within their effort to modernize without adopting Western ideologies.
There is a vast controversy in the Arab world to further implementing steps to grant women more freedom as it is controversial to both religion and culture. However, the question lies whether or not this is considered oppression or merely a preservation of Islamic religion and culture. Abuse and oppression are two very commonly noted phrases in western societies that people tend to tie in with Muslim women in Middle Eastern Countries. As Saudi Arabia is one of the oldest absolute monarchies still in reign by King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, it strives to maintain and hold Shari’a laws. Do the issues lie within the laws of Shari’a or within the government, and does Islamic Law in this country endanger women? This paper will acknowledge the steps the government, women, and men are and are not taking to grant them extended rights.
Shari’a law is not an actual legal system , but a way of Islamic life for the Sunni Muslims inhabiting Saudi Arabia that is interpreted through certain Islamic principles, as well as the Quran and is incorporated through tradition and custom. Saudi Arabia bases their reputation on the status that they are the only Islamic country to continue their faith by establishing a Shari’a based legal system with no parallel civil legal code and is the underlying principle of their Constitution. As a result, Saudi Arabia’s legal system is enforced by ‘muttawa’ which is a legal police force that monitors those who are in violation to respective social or moral behaviors that are not in direct correlation to their beliefs. This allows any person being male of female succumbed to the torturous methods enforced by these police, and includes public beheading, flogging, or torture. The main areas in which Shari’a is the primary source of law would be in criminal, civil, and family law, and although according to the Quran, men and women are created equal, Saudi Arabia grants women to count as only half of any political, social, economical, or judicial representation. This in light, has created an enormous obstruction for women not only in the justice system, but in their daily lives.
As women in the West have had their share of discrimination throughout time, in today’s world they are considered equal to men in every way. Islamic law does not give women that sort of luxury, as it endangers them. It exposes them to be ill-treated in a way that interferes with not only their faith, but basic human rights. The repression of women in Saudi Arabia has been detrimental as the government has not been ensuring the well-being of women, resulting in most cases of domestic abuse not being reported, or dismissed. Domestic abuse is a misfortunate commonty that is not unrecognized internationally even in the western countries, but what differentiates the West from the women in Saudi Arabia is the abuse is not limited to their homes. Women face torment throughout their daily lives outside of their homes by the ‘mutawa’ and the laws enforced. What seems to confuse the West is the depiction that many women portray as a life of luxury while others seek change in their government, and hope for some sort of support as they’re resiliency is not enough. While many women feel oppressed and see the gravity of the injustices, they remain hopeful of a better future into which they can take full participation in as an equal in the work force, and in terms of education. The idea of abandoning the ideas of the abaya and the niqab is appealing but will conform to wearing them with a variety of colors.
While there is opposition from those women who are so loyal to their faith that they see the luxurious and privileged side of this life. The sexual segregation is seen as normal and a sign of consented submissiveness as women accept the idea of men being the masculine dominant. There are women in Saudi Arabia who believe they should be grateful to not have to provide for their families and consider the submissive state to their husbands a form of gratitude for all that they do. They are thankful for male guardianship wherever they go and from what they receive given the support of their sons, husbands, and men within their families. These ideas come from women who are proud to wear their abayas that represent their culture and faith in an attempt to demonstrate an example of a righteous Muslim woman. With such a divided and controversial ideology, it is difficult to pin point a direct conclusion on whether or not these women consider this oppression, and a form of policy revision that grants women the basic human rights without overstepping their laws, and preserving their values.
A more detailed outlook on the religious police, also known as the “mutawa” is the official enforcer of the Shari’a law in Saudia Arabia and many Islamic states. They are untrained men in law enforcement but are accompanied by a police escort to ensure stability. The need for these police is justified by the Quran in an attempt to preserve religious virtue and implement the moral code of ethics conducted by their country. This police force is recognized by the government and is seen as a positive input to society as well as encouraged to pursue those in violations of social infractions specifically by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV). The religious police are mandated with the power to apprehend those people who violate the rules that are not approved by the laws of the land (which mainly are tribal laws). This ‘law enforcement’ has been controversial as its mission is to conduct a public service of honesty, integrity, and virtue is not always portrayed with moral actions. While the members of the mutawa are considered volunteers, they are the ones who make judgements on what is considered morally right of wrong, and has undergone wide criticism in and outside of Saudi Arabia.
While the range of morality is a broad subject, this automatically entitles the mutawa to make moral judgements not only to people in public, but what the public is exposed to. They especially enforce and pressure women to wear the abaya, niqab, and prohibit socializing with men who are not directly related to them. The closing of businesses is also a mandatory obligation during prayer time to show worship and the repercussion of not doing so can result in punishment. The mutawa also prohibits the selling and distribution of alcohol and pork and can be punishable by flogging. While most western music, movies, and media is banned, the mutawa take charge in administering which can be seen by the eyes of their conservative fellows.
Punishments are cruel and unusual; the enforcement is often aggressive and isn’t always properly addressed as it is often an abusive form of authority by the volunteers whose judgement may not always correlate to their roles. Their job duties are not limited to monitoring women in the streets unaccompanied by male guardians and sexual segregation of unrelated mixed socialization, but range extensively. The mutawa are allowed to pursue, capture, and interrogate and even detain their captives without the initiation of the police escort. The types of punishment inflicted on violators is not by the police escort rather the mutawa and can even be inflicted publicly. While more serious crimes most commonly recognized throughout the world including murder and rape, beheadings can also be done to those convicted of attempted terrorism, robbery and drug trafficking. Executions for non-violent crimes have caused uproar throughout the globe, but the Saudi government sees it more beneficial as it dissuades criminals from continuous crimes. Flogging, and lashes are another very common tactic used to enforce capital punishment. Most floggings are held public, and used as a demonstration to warn others of committing the same mistake.
However, the idea of cruel and unusual punishment has come to a halt since social media has made it significantly difficult to hide the abuse of power the matawa has gained. Many Saudi Arabians began to feel inflicted as the abuse of power only increased and was unnecessarily strict and to an extreme. As social media spread the word of the way the mutawa was harassing, abusing, and punishing civilians, most of who were women, for the slightest reasoning, it created a civil unrest and a major backlash. The most prominent and devastating example as to when the civil unrest began was after a notoriously tragic incident occurred in Mecca when 15 school girls were killed in a fire. The line was drawn at this point because the mutawa prevented the girls from leaving a burning building because they were not wearing the appropriate attire or were not in the presence of a man to be escorted out. People argued that the girls died unnecessarily as a result to an outrageously extreme interpretation of Islamic code. In April of 2016, the government stripped the mutawa of their abusive power. They no longer had the power to punish, arrest, or take any form of action against violators of Islamic law on the spot. Instead of granting punishment, they are now required to report the violation and will document it and forward it to the actual police. It was the governments form of taking a gentler approach. This controversy was not taken as a step to social reform, but simply a step towards civilian peace. While there are still a significant amount of people who entail that the religious police be kept involved, there are the small groups who believe the religious police should be completely disbanded. Those who are in favor of, live in fear of having their moral values lost by not having an enforcer. The issue has since been resolved under balancing circumstances as they have addressed the grievances previously made by the mutawa and are living a more peaceful outcome.
Unfortunately for women, the harassment of the mutawa was not their only concern. They have managed to escape public harassment, but are still not free of the unjust inequality they receive implemented by their government. Their legal system has it suited for women in to becoming so reliant on men in their daily lives that they are molded into a submissive unequal partner. They have been implemented a form of oppression that is beyond their reasoning. These women are unable to attend any sort of power as they need permission from their guardians. The guardians usually tend to be the men of her immediate family such as her father, husband, or brother. The amount of power they have over them is the same as to what a parent has over their child everywhere else in the world, but more. The amount of restrictions that these women have is unlike any other because they go beyond the law into feeling shame and fear without having the consent of their guardian. Their basic human rights are not granted unless otherwise permitted to attain with the consent of a woman’s guardian. From the simplest to the grandest effects, making a woman move forward in this environment is very difficult as they are taught from a young age that this is the norm.
Women were not allowed to drive or vote until recently, and if those weren’t oppressing enough, they still need written permission to go to school, higher education, to seek work, travel, and even the most basic of needs such as a visit to the hospital. The driving ban has been an immense symbol of oppression for Saudi Arabian women, and since the uplifting of the ban, there has been a significant amount of activism from women. This level of oppression has created a foundation that has made the male population a dominant figure while diminishing the position of women causing them to be silenced of all forms of abuse and oppression. Despite the strict ruling of conservatism in which speaking any topics related to sex is something that is adhered from completely as it also a violation of Shari’a law, women are still sexually abused. An example of this would be from as there are instances of even family members sexually abusing the women in their family. Sexual abuse is something that is very difficult to cope with living in Saudi Arabia under Shari’a laws as it creates a shameful view towards them and instead shames and even punishes them. If a woman tries to flee her abusive home, there will be no place for refuge for her and the penalties of fleeing would be punishable by lashing or even jail. Other realities are unsympathetic Saudi Law enforcement officers, and outright general gender discrimination in the legal system. These factors make it impossible for victims to report sexual abuse.
The repression of not being allowed to speak on behalf of their wellbeing is enlightening women to begin acting. Denying these women of such basic rights such as being medically treated has sparked national controversial outrage after women are being severely beaten by their husbands without having the ability to be seen without the consent of their abusers. The Saudi Arabian government has taken notice in these forming attempts at reform, and although has been under international pressure their conservatism is the sole principle of government. The only beneficial side they see to liberating women under numerous regulations is only to benefit their economy. Since a majority of women are limited in options in their work force, the government is aspiring to facilitate and increase their economy. However, the results of such of such an idea and no action has resulted in women running away from their abusive families. After many women began fleeing their homes, and forcibly returned and jailed, social media campaigns and international women activists with the help of human rights activists were their voice.
Social media is the main source of communicating to the world despite their isolation from the outside. This issue has received global attention and activists from all corners of the world are criticizing the Saudi Arabian government for allowing such violence. These voiced acts of bringing awareness are being silenced with punishments, and although the protests within the country are all peaceful, any form of rebellion is persecuted and punished to full extents. A major international outrage that recently has earned the attention of the world was the case of Raif Badawi. Raif was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashings for insulting Islam according to the Saudi Arabian Supreme Court. Raif had created a website that entitled free speech named the Saudi Free Liberals Forum. The first flogging was enacted in 2015 and the second has since been postponed for health reasons. Raif has hypertension which in case of another flogging would probably not survive. His wife fled to Canada with the rest of their family after receiving death threats and began a foundation that has proposed support and protest throughout the entire world.
As a result, the oppression of women is Saudi Arabia denies them their most basic human rights and the interpretation of Islam is incoherent with the word of the Quran. The resulting outcome because of this push, the Saudi government has begun moving towards women’s rights. The proposition to ensure the safety and well-being of a woman is to be enforced along with criminalizing those who are guilty of violence towards them. In 2005, a royal decree was established the National Family Safety Program (NFSP) that raised awareness for domestic violence and provided assistance to victims. Slowly but surely Saudi Arabia has improved their government system for women’s rights and has made breakthroughs that has shocked the world such as the most recent news of allowing women to partake in voting for elections and even have reserved seating in the council and to stand as candidates. This has rocked the playing field for women in Saudi Arabia as their voices are finally being heard. Even though women still have obstacles to achieving such positions, it is a step towards retaining oppression.
The latest news that has set even higher standards for women in achieving equality was the right to drive. This was the longest symbolic form of oppression and now that it no longer withstands, it has a deeper meaning for women activists. It costed decades of reform, but have taken a successful step towards victory. Although the main reason behind the government’s plan to allow women to drive was solely based on economic expansion. He government saw the strict limitations on women was not only costing them worldwide attention, but an economic halt. Adding women to the work force is allowing them to partake in economic victories, yet is still benefitting women as they are attaining their firsts tastes of equality.
The Saudi Arabian Kingdom has been successful at preserving their conservative Islamic principles and applying it to their national law, but has come at quite a cost. Their exaggerated form of policing civilians, and their discrimination of women within the nation, are just two of the many other obstacles entailed to them that Saudi Arabia must adhere to. It is an ongoing process that is trying to find balance within the modernizing world and preservation of their beliefs. It is a balance that must be met to ensure the future success of Saudi Arabia in all forms of which a Kingdom may be prosperous.
Saudi Arabia serves as an example to many nations abroad face. Even with so many technological advancements, there will always be the underlying factor in which a country runs based on their government and the opportunity the government grants its citizens. Saudi Arabia has a lot of potential as a developing country with its many opportunities in economy. The problems that it struggles to adhere to are the harsh cultural reluctances.
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