Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa - Saudi Arabia

  • Author: Jill Crystal
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    14 October 2005

Population: 24,100,000
GDP Per Capita (PPP): $12,650
Economy: Mixed capitalist-statist
Ranking on UN HDI: 77 out of 177
Polity: Traditional monarchy
Literacy: Male 84.1% / Female 69.5%
Percent Women Economically Active: 22%
Date of Women's Suffrage: No suffrage
Women's Fertility Rate: 5.7
Percent Urban/Rural: Urban 83% / Rural 17%


Nondiscrimination and Access to Justice: 1.2
Autonomy, Security, and Freedom of the Person: 1.1
Economic Rights and Equal Opportunity: 1.4
Political Rights and Civic Voice: 1.0
Social and Cultural Rights: 1.6

(Scale of 1 to 5: 1 represents the lowest and 5 the highest level of freedom women have to exercise their rights)


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that has been ruled by the Al Saud family since the country's unification in 1932. Saudi Arabia's 1992 Basic Law declares that the Quran and the Sunna are the country's constitution. Succession is limited to descendants of Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of the kingdom. Crown Prince Abdullah has for the most part governed the country's affairs since 1997 because the current king, Fahd, suffered a stroke in 1995. The monarch appoints both the Council of Ministers, which is responsible for government administration, and the 120-member Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council), which studies legislation and offers advice to the ruling family. The king also appoints emirs, all currently members of the Al Saud family, to administer the kingdom's regional sectors. Women are legally prohibited from participating in any public decision-making bodies. Neither men nor women have the right to vote in Saudi Arabia, and political parties are forbidden. In October 2003, the government announced plans to hold elections for half of the members of municipal councils in 2004.

Saudi Arabia, which occupies most of the Arabian Peninsula, is the world's leading oil producer and exporter. The GDP per capita is $12,650. The kingdom holds a special place of importance for Muslims all over the world, in that it houses two of the holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina. Mecca becomes a destination for some 2 million pilgrims who travel there for the annual Hajj (pilgrimage). The country's total population is about 24.1 million, with foreign residents on temporary work assignments comprising about 67 percent of the workforce. About 10 percent of the population are Shi'a, who are discriminated against in hiring, education, and government services. The unemployment rate for Saudi nationals is between 25 percent and 30 percent.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has made some progress in women's education and employment. However, gender discrimination is built into Saudi Arabia's governmental and social structures and is integral in the country's practice and interpretation of their particular version of religious teachings. Women's access to employment opportunities is limited, and they do not enjoy the full benefits of citizenship or legal adulthood. Reformers within Saudi Arabia who are willing to take risks for the sake of democratization have recognized the need for change. This represents an unprecedented opening for the international community to support efforts toward reform.


Saudi Arabia follows its own state-sponsored version of Sunni Islam, known as Wahhabism, which is considered one of the most conservative interpretations of the faith. The government and judicial system are based on the Saudi construction of Islamic law, which does not accept the premise that men and women should be treated equally. The Saudi justice system lacks procedures to insure due process, legal representation for defendants, or protection from torture. Women are subject to tighter legal restrictions on personal behavior than are men, and laws in general are applied arbitrarily, with more latitude afforded to well-connected Saudi citizens than to foreigners.

Article 8 of the country's Basic Law declares equality for all: "Government in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is based on the premise of justice, consultation, and equality in accordance with the Islamic Shari'ah." Islamic law in Saudi Arabia, however, does not offer equality to women. The text of the Quran and Hadith are often subject to individual interpretations that favor the position of men over women. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is a hierarchical society that privileges notables and the well connected over ordinary citizens and outsiders. It also favors a hierarchical family model that values obedience, with the younger deferring to the older and women deferring to men. Consequently, the biases built into the laws of the kingdom and into their application reflect the biases in both society and scripture. This is quite visible in the varying treatment of foreigners in Saudi Arabia, where workers are treated differently depending on their country of origin.

While Saudi Islamic law does not ensure equal rights for men and women, the law is viewed as aiming to assure gender equivalence. This means that rights in law should be balanced according to the prescribed rights and duties of men and women in relation to each other. While most laws discriminate against women, the principle of equivalence is believed to sometimes work in women's favor. For example, while daughters inherit half of what sons inherit, by law women retain ownership of their own property after marriage and have no obligation to spend their wealth on behalf of their husbands or children. Married men, on the other hand, are obligated to provide the full maintenance of their families. Similarly, the principle that men are responsible for the protection of women means that in practice, men may be obligated to stand in for women when it comes to dealing with government bureaucracies or the courts. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, the head-to-toe dress code (niqab and abaya) is imposed on all women with the idea that it is a woman's obligation to ensure the moral behavior of men and protect the "honor" of her family. Should a woman be admonished by the mutawwa'in (foot-soldiers of the Saudi government's Society for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) for not appearing sufficiently modest, or apprehended for immoral behavior such as eating in a restaurant with an unrelated male, it is usually the woman's male guardian or her mahram (her husband or closest male family relative) and not the woman herself, who is likely to be punished by the court with either fines or imprisonment.

As holders of Saudi nationality, women are at a disadvantage when it comes to gaining access to the benefits of the state. Saudi women who marry a non-Saudi are not permitted to pass their nationality on to their children, nor can their husband receive Saudi nationality. A man with Saudi nationality who marries a non-Saudi, however, is entitled to apply for, and receive, Saudi nationality for his wife and children. Only Muslims can obtain Saudi citizenship. In 2002, women were allowed to apply for their own individual identity cards, although they must still obtain the permission of their mahram in order to do so. Before this, women appeared as nationals in state records only by virtue of being included as members of their father's family, making it difficult or impossible for widowed, abandoned, or single women to receive state subsidies or other benefits on their own.

Women do not have equal access to the courts or an equal opportunity to obtain justice. Saudi women are not allowed to act as lawyers, and a woman seeking access to the courts must either work through a male lawyer, have a male relative represent her, or represent herself before a court of all-male judges. Consequently, a Saudi woman may be forced to provide intimate details of her legal, financial, or family affairs to male judges and lawyers. In cases involving divorce or child custody, women sometimes have to rely on their husbands, who are also their legal adversaries, to represent them. This, in effect, discourages Saudi women from pursuing access to justice at most levels. A woman is not considered a full person before the court. In accordance with the Saudi interpretation of Shari'a, the testimony of one man is equivalent to that of two women.

In the penal code, men and women are assigned punishments for crimes according to the Saudis' version of Shari'a. In some cases, the penal code prescribes equal punishment, and in others, the punishment is gender-specific. For example, for purposes of compensation in cases of accidental death or injury, a woman's worth is always figured at half that of a man's, as determined on analogy with the law of inheritance.

Article 36 of the Basic Law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention by any of the arresting authorities in the Saudi kingdom, including agents of regional governors, public security agencies, police departments, and drug, traffic, and passport agencies, in addition to the mutawwa'in. Nevertheless, laws and regulations are applied arbitrarily with reference to the status of individual litigants and defendants. Foreigners, Shi'a, and less-privileged citizens are subject to arbitrary arrest.

During 2003, there were cases in which the mutawwa'in harassed, abused, and detained citizens and foreigners of both genders. Women of many nationalities were detained for what is considered inappropriate behavior, such as dining in restaurants with unrelated males, riding in a taxi with a male who is not their relative, or appearing in public with their heads uncovered. Offenses such as being alone in the company of an unrelated person of the opposite gender may be punished by caning. Global attention focused on the actions of the mutawwa'in in March of 2002, when they were accused of interfering in rescue efforts during a fire in a girls' public intermediate school in Mecca in order to enforce Saudi Arabia's obligatory Islamic dress code. Some of the fleeing girls were reportedly not wearing the required head coverings and abayas (long black cloaks). A report prepared by Mecca's Civil Defense Department noted that mutawwa'in were at the school's main gate and "intentionally obstructed the efforts to evacuate the girls. This resulted in the increased number of casualties." The fire claimed the lives of at least 14 girl students.

Especially vulnerable to rights abuse are women from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and other countries who work in Saudi Arabia as domestic helpers. Being unmarried, or living without their husbands, migrant women are subject to accusations of wrongdoing that don't apply to men, such as "illegal pregnancy," witchcraft, or being in any public place, especially at night, where they may be assumed to be soliciting for prostitution. At the same time, domestic workers are always vulnerable to sexual exploitation and other abuse by their Saudi employers. They cannot complain to police because reporting an employer's misconduct may be considered a false allegation and hence criminal behavior on the part of the woman worker. Women interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Malaz prison in Riyadh in 2003 indicated that they had no access to lawyers and were unsure of the charges against them, even though the code of criminal procedures that came into effect in 2002 recognizes the right to legal counsel for criminal suspects.

Saudi Arabia ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2000, with reservations, stating, "In case of contradiction between any term of the Convention and the norms of Islamic law, the Kingdom is not under obligation to observe the contradictory terms of the Convention." Based on Saudi Arabia's interpretation and implementation of Islamic law, this reservation acts to nullify some of CEDAW's articles. To date, the Saudi government has not filed any follow-up reports to CEDAW, nor has it taken any steps to bring its national laws into conformity with the universal standards on women's human rights.


  1. The government should review all laws and policies and amend the Basic Law to ensure gender equality and to prohibit the discrimination of women and foreign nationals.
  2. The government should remove all reservations to CEDAW and take steps to implement it locally by bringing national laws in conformity with CEDAW.


Freedom of religion is highly restricted in Saudi Arabia. Muslims in Saudi Arabia are required to accept the state-sponsored Wahhabi interpretation of Islam; all other Muslim schools of thought or jurisprudence and other forms of Islamic ritual are illicit, including Shi'ism in all its variant forms, as well as Sufism. Public practice or preaching of religions other than Islam are forbidden and punished. Saudi women, who may not agree with the more conservative and patriarchal interpretations of Islam in Saudi Arabia, do not have open or safe ways to express their dissent or to present alternative interpretations of Islam. Despite the historical role played by women in early Islam in what is now Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to fill any leadership positions in the country's religious institutions. Women are encouraged to pray at home, where they are considered "safer," although solitary prayer at home deprives women of the benefit of communal worship, which is preferred in Islam.

Women's freedom of movement in Saudi Arabia is limited through a combination of legal and social controls and religiously sanctioned local practices. While some Saudis perceive the laws and practices that govern women's movement as necessities to insure the protection of women, others view them as insuring the perpetuation of male dominance. Modern restrictions on women's movement are basically derived from two practices in Saudi society. First, a woman is not to be outside her own neighborhood except in the company of her mahram; and second, an unrelated man and woman are not to be in physical contact with one another. A woman may not drive cars, check into a hotel alone, rent an apartment for herself, or get on an airplane without her mahram's permission. She is not supposed to ride in a car unless the driver is her mahram, though women do so out of necessity.

Visible and invisible spatial boundaries also limit women's movement. Mosques, most ministries, public streets, and food stalls (supermarkets not included) are male territory. Furthermore, accommodations that are available for men are always superior to those accessible to women, and public space, such as parks, zoos, museums, libraries, or the national Jinadriyah Festival of Folklore and Culture, is created for men, with only limited times allotted for women's visits.

Restrictions on women's movement have a negatively disproportionate effect on foreign women, especially women from developing countries. Saudi employers routinely take workers' passports on arrival and will hold them until the employee departs the kingdom. A foreign woman worker is therefore restricted from traveling outside her town of residence and prohibited from leaving the country of her own volition. Furthermore, some employers use the mahram rule to justify locking women employees in at night. Prohibited from driving themselves, unable to afford private transportation, and a lack of public transportation, restricts the options of working women to walking on the streets, precisely where they can be apprehended by the religious police on an accusation of solicitation.

Laws of personal status follow the Shari'a, as interpreted and applied in Saudi Arabia, which favors males in matters of marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. Marriage is recognized by a contract between the husband-to-be and the mahram of the intended bride. The marriage contract provides room for the amount of the mahr (money or other valuables gifted to the bride-to-be by the prospective husband, which she is legally entitled to retain) and allows for the insertion of marriage stipulations. An example of these stipulations could involve the husband-to-be's pledge that should he choose to take a second wife, the bride would be entitled to an automatic divorce. Stipulations that run counter to the Saudis' version of Shari'a, however, may be disallowed in a Saudi court. The marriage contract requires the bride to specify whether she is a virgin, widow, or divorcee, but does not require the husband to do the same. While the formal contract seems rigid and excludes the bride, the contract itself is merely the legal confirmation of decisions taken jointly by two families, and most often today, jointly by the husband-to-be and his prospective bride. The degree to which a woman participates in decisions surrounding her own marriage depends entirely on her family and her own personal situation.

The husband is entitled to a divorce without explanation simply by registering a statement of his intention with a court and repeating it three times. By law, a man is obligated to provide maintenance for his wife for a period after divorce, but there are no enforcement mechanisms. The wife, by contrast, may obtain a divorce only if her husband granted her the right of divorce at the time of the signing of their marriage contract. The majority of women in Saudi Arabia lack this right, in which case, a Muslim wife can only obtain a legal divorce by proving in court desertion or impotence on the part of the husband, which is humiliating and logistically burdensome. She may also buy her way out of the marriage through a method known as khul, in which a wife usually must forgo all her maintenance rights and mahr.

A woman is constrained in seeking a divorce, or in leaving a husband who has taken a second wife, because her children legally belong to the children's father, and so to leave him means to give up her children. For Saudi women nationals, there are some mitigating factors such as family influence in negotiating with, or in some cases, buying off either the court officials or the husband. In addition, some judges may decide to consider the fitness of the parents in awarding custody. Nevertheless, even in cases in which the father is patently unable to parent properly, paternal grandparents may have a prior claim to the children over the mother. Non-nationals, mostly foreign women because Saudi women rarely marry foreign men, have few options, and once the father has physical custody of the children inside the kingdom, there are no legal avenues within the Saudi justice system to pursue custody.

The government of Saudi Arabia outlawed slavery in 1962, but the country is a destination for trafficked persons. Human Rights Watch has documented cases of workers forced into situations of coerced labor or slave-like conditions. Some female foreign workers are trapped in places of employment, especially private homes, and are unable to leave the premises, forced to work very long hours for payment that may never be delivered, deprived of food and sleep, and subjected to sexual abuse. There is no reported information on Saudi women nationals living in conditions of servitude, but women can be trapped in slave-like conditions as a result of poverty, illiteracy, physical isolation, or dependence on the mahram. This problem is exacerbated by the Saudi concept of "obedience due the husband," which is also incorporated in the schoolbooks of the national curriculum.

In 2001, the Council of Ministers approved a 225-article penal code, under which the use of torture is forbidden. Nevertheless, torture is a known practice in Saudi prisons. Once apprehended, a person may be held incommunicado and subjected to torture, commonly used to extract confessions that are presented in court as conclusive evidence of the detained person's guilt. In addition to prison torture, Saudi authorities regularly implement their version of Shari'a punishments: flogging, amputation, and beheading are inflicted on both men and women. In almost all such cases, the accused do not get due process of law, and foreigners in particular are at the mercy of Saudi police. There is no evidence, however, to suggest that women fare worse in regard to torture or mutilation than men.

Domestic violence and marital rape are problems that are well known in Saudi Arabia but never discussed publicly. Saudi political culture promotes a mythology of the Muslim family, "the fundamental building block of society," in which each person is allocated rights and duties and derives justice through membership. At the same time, the privacy of women is fused with ideals of family "honor." Consequently, society and media in general cannot talk about the reality of domestic violence without challenging public myths about themselves, and women in particular find it extremely difficult to talk about their personal situation without the fear of damaging their family's "honor" and their own reputation.

In April 2004, television host Rania al-Baz broke the wall of silence when she allowed photographs to be made public of her battered face after she had been beaten and choked by her husband. Despite the outpouring of interest and sympathy that the disclosure evoked, the al-Baz incident may not have established a precedent for other women to come forward, or have changed social attitudes toward domestic violence. The outcome of the al-Baz case illustrates how powerful these social constraints continue to be for women and how domestic violence continues to be viewed as a family matter. Al-Baz's husband was sentenced to only six months and 300 lashes and was then released after serving only half that sentence once he worked out an arrangement with al-Baz, who wanted a divorce and custody of her sons.

There are no laws in Saudi Arabia that protect women from gender-based violence, domestic violence, or marital rape. These acts are not accepted grounds for divorce, and one woman's testimony of violence is often not accepted as evidence against her husband. Women who report sexual abuse or rape, whether perpetrated by an employer or otherwise, are unlikely to find a sympathetic hearing with judicial authorities. Instead of protection from the perpetrator, women may find themselves accused of illicit sex. Usually the burden to prove rape charges is on the woman victim, who must produce all required witnesses. The only basis for a rape conviction is a confession or the evidence of four witnesses. Lack of government support services and shelters for women victims of domestic violence and the absence of proper laws discourage women from coming forward with such cases. No government policies or procedures exist for training police or hospital officials to identify and support women victims of violence, nor are there any legal guidelines to ensure that perpetrators of violence receive punishment and do not harass their victims.


  1. The government should allow Saudi women to study and practice law in the country.
  2. The government should enact laws against domestic violence and assess the scope of this problem in order to formulate appropriate responses to protect women, including confidential hotlines and shelter and counseling services.
  3. The government should hire women police officers to handle cases involving women.


Both Saudi Arabian law and the country's interpretation of Shari'a provide women with the right to own and manage their property and other assets, including real estate, the mahr given at marriage, and earned income. However, by tradition, women who live among the less than 20 percent of the country's population that is rural do not receive the inheritance to which they are legally entitled, as they are considered to be supported by their fathers or husbands.

In general, women's use of their personal wealth and property is restricted by a combination of social customs, traditions, and religious values that have been incorporated into the kingdom's commercial regulations and bureaucratic rules. The requirement for unrelated men and women to be separated in all public places, including the work place, government ministries and offices, retail establishments, hotels, restaurants, recreational facilities, and banks, greatly affects women's ability to independently own and use their assets, income, and property. Based on gender-segregation rules and the mahram rule placing women under the legal guardianship of men, there is an additional requirement that a woman who wants to go into business must hire a male manager before receiving a commercial license. It is apparent that in practice, the Saudi government has not taken concrete steps to facilitate the right of women citizens to have full access to their economic opportunities.

Saudi families have creatively found ways in which to increase women's economic opportunities, despite the constraints imposed on women's economic rights. They have successfully advocated for the establishment of separate women's bank branches and women-only shopping malls, while private businesses and some ministries have set aside women-only offices. Most employed women work in the gender-segregated schools, colleges, and universities, but women entrepreneurs also invest in manufacturing and the service industries, real estate, and education, most notably in private training institutes that teach young women marketable skills. Women with professional skills such as architecture, journalism, and translation also establish businesses in their own homes.

Saudi customs involving gender-segregation have softened in some circles over recent years. Saudi women have reappeared on local television, and women health-care professionals, including doctors and nurses, administrators, lab technicians, and social workers, work in a completely mixed-gender environment in government hospitals. The government is actively searching for ways to increase women's participation in the work force and has established industrial projects to employ women.

Despite a growth in the number of employed Saudi women, the state estimates that nearly six times more Saudi men were employed in the kingdom than Saudi women in 2002. The state also estimates that despite the vast diversification of educational opportunities, less than 10 percent of Saudi women over the age of 15 are in the work force. The lack of Saudi government-approved "legitimate" (i.e. gender-segregated) places of work is a major obstacle to women's employment. The Saudi government has not taken concrete steps to provide convenient, affordable, or safe transportation or working space facilities for Saudi or foreign women workers in the country.

In regard to women and government employment, a limited number of positions are available in education, and jobs in the ministries are largely the bailiwick of men. Potential employers are hindered by the intricacies of the burdensome mahram system required for women working in business, as well as the additional costs incurred to employ and work through male intermediaries. Employers' reluctance to set up a complex gender-segregated work facility for women is another obstacle. Hundreds of thousands of administrative and secretarial jobs in the private sector that could go to women are filled by foreign men as a result of gender segregation. Finally, the labor law, while beneficial to women workers with its generous maternity leave and time off during the work day for nursing, is at the same time a deterrent to hiring women in the private sector due to the financial burdens these benefits place on prospective employers.

Education in Saudi Arabia is free at all levels. Female students at the pre-college level have access to the same courses as male students, except that, until 2003, girls were not allowed to take gym or a course entitled "Civics." While a high rate of illiteracy characterizes the population above age 15 (30.5 percent for women and 15.9 percent for men), the figures drop considerably for the younger population aged 15 to 24 (9.7 percent for women and 5.1 percent for men), although the gender disparity remains. At the elementary level, only 56 percent of school-aged girls are enrolled, which would suggest a possible parental gender bias when it comes to sending daughters to school, except that, by comparison, only 60 percent of elementary school-aged boys are in school.

Women comprise an estimated 56 percent of the nearly 32,000 students in higher education institutions. However, women are not allowed to study engineering and are not admitted to the King Fahd University for Oil and Minerals in Dhahran, on the grounds that they would not be allowed to work in the profession for which they would be trained. All Saudi universities that admit women have separate and inferior facilities for their female students. When King Saud University, the largest university in the kingdom, was built as a state-of-the-art institution in the early 1980s to accommodate 25,000 male students, women were moved to the old male campus of Riyadh University, which had no useful library. Nevertheless, gender discrimination in higher education is changing. A new campus for women is under construction in Riyadh, and there is a private college for girls in Jeddah, the first in Saudi Arabia designed to follow an American curriculum.


  1. The government should guarantee Saudi women equal facilities and equal access to all fields of education.
  2. The government should continue its ongoing reforms in the educational sector and should seek technical assistance from the international educational community to incorporate a broader perspective of world events into the Saudi school curriculum.
  3. The government should establish women's studies centers and departments in Saudi colleges and schools to help students, teachers, and the broader society obtain a better understanding of women's human rights issues.
  4. The government should provide all women with efficient, safe, and affordable transportation and remove all restrictions on women's driving, travel, and employment.


There are no elections or political parties in Saudi Arabia, and there are no constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech, press, or assembly. Neither Saudi nationals nor non-nationals have the right to vote or participate in any political activity. Forming trade unions, striking, and engaging in collective bargaining are forbidden. While women are becoming more active and visible in the current movement of reform, they are still marginalized, and women's status remains a muted issue.

The Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council) is an all-male 120-member advisory body first appointed by the king in 1992 with a mandate to study the king's legislative initiatives. In 2004, at the same time as the prerogatives of the Council increased to include introducing new legislation and amending existing legislation, three women were appointed to serve on an advisory council to the Majlis but not to serve as members. The first-ever municipal elections, announced in 2003, are now slated to begin in 2005, but only males over the age of 21 who are not in military service will be allowed to vote and run for office. Saudi women are petitioning for the right to participate.

The weekly majlis (gathering) that is held by the king and provincial governors is the one institution that supposedly provides direct access to the government. This forum permits nationals to petition for redress of grievances or for personal favors. While the majlis is "open to all citizens and to anyone who has a complaint or a plea against an injustice," women are traditionally not allowed to attend; they must send a written petition on their own behalf. On majlis days, female petitioners wait in the streets outside the meeting and try to hand their petitions through the windows of limousines.

Despite women's need for legal representation in the courts and the availability of trained women lawyers, Saudi Arabia's conservative ulama (religious scholars) forbid women to participate in the judiciary, either as judges or as lawyers.

Saudi men and women submitted a series of reform petitions to the government in 2003. While the petitioners pledged their allegiance to the monarchy, they demanded changes in the system of governance, including, albeit indirectly, calls for women's rights. In January 2003, 104 citizens sent the crown prince a letter entitled "A Vision for the Nation and its Future" that called for social justice, the public election of the Majlis al-Shura, an end to corruption, an independent judiciary, and freedom of speech, assembly, and association. In April, a second petition signed by 450 Shi'a men and women, entitled "Partners in One Nation," expressed sympathy with the signatories of the January letter and asked for relief from discrimination and for greater Shi'a representation in government positions, education reform, and religious freedom. On September 24, 2003, 306 Sunni and Shiite men and women sent another petition, "In Defense of the Nation," calling for political reform, separation of powers, freedom of speech, right of assembly, and religious tolerance and cited as problems administrative corruption, fiscal irresponsibility, poverty, unemployment, and the second-class status of women. The petition also criticized the slow pace of reform and the absence of popular participation in decision-making, observing that the lack of freedom of expression fostered the growth of intolerance and extremism.

The crown prince, who has led efforts to respond to citizens' concerns, gave a friendly reception to the petitioners, but subsequent events suggest that the ruling family is ambivalent about how far to allow reforms to go forward. In October 2003, the government opened a conference on human rights sponsored by the Saudi Red Crescent Society but later arrested 271 persons during a demonstration that included women advocating for political reform and the release of political prisoners.

The much-heralded National Dialogue Conference held in August 2003 included the subject of the "rights and duties of women," and the January 2004 Jeddah Economic Forum brought women's roles in the economy to national attention. Saudi women, notably businesswomen, also spoke on Saudi economic growth at the Economic Forum and participated in the same room with men – some without hijab (complete head cover). However, the Grand Mufti, Shaikh Abd al-Aziz Al as-Shaikh criticized women's public presence in this mixed-gender gathering.

Saudi Arabia remains a country without the basic freedoms necessary for civil society to take root. Saudi nationals find it extremely difficult to start new organizations or women's groups, and any new NGO involved in journalism, human rights, or the "national dialogue" is quickly co-opted by the government. In August of 2003, King Fahd approved the establishment of an official human rights organization, the National Organization for Human Rights, and appointed 9 women out of 41 members; the chairman and executive committee are also members of the Consultative Council.


  1. The Saudi government should allow for political parties and truly free and competitive elections in which both women and men participate.
  2. The government should ensure freedom of expression by permitting independent press and radio programs to present alternative viewpoints without the fear of attacks or intimidation by non-state actors.
  3. The government should allow women's human rights groups to work freely and openly and provide them with security to prevent attacks by non-state actors.


Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in public health services; Article 27 of the Basic Law of the kingdom secures Saudi welfare rights and declares, "The State shall guarantee the right of its citizens and their families in an emergency or in case of disease, disability and old age." State-of-the-art, government-funded medical care is available free of charge for Saudi citizens, especially in populous urban centers, though foreigners usually must rely on private medical care. Quality health services are less available in rural areas than in urban centers, but still, 83 percent of all births take place in health-care facilities in rural areas and 95 percent in cities. Despite the availability of health services, women's access to health care may be restricted. For example, women are forbidden to have surgical procedures without the approval of a mahram.

According to a Population Reference Bureau study, modern contraceptive methods are used by 29 percent of Saudi women aged 15 to 49. These figures suggest a change in policy since the 1970s and 1980s when it was illegal to sell or purchase contraceptive devices.

Abortion is not easily available in Saudi Arabia and is illegal in most circumstances, including rape and incest, except under specific medical conditions. Unmarried women who become pregnant, especially non-Saudis, are at risk of arrest, prosecution, or loss of employment, should their marital status become known while they are seeking medical care in a hospital. Human Rights Watch reports that the Ministry of Health issued a directive in 2003 that prohibited hospitals from admitting pregnant women who were not accompanied by men willing to acknowledge paternity. A pregnant woman in such a situation who needed emergency care would be put under watch to prevent her from leaving. The purpose of this directive, according to Human Rights Watch, was to deal with the problem of unmarried women abandoning their babies at hospitals.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is not a common practice in Saudi Arabia, although anecdotal evidence suggests that the practice exists in some Shi'a communities in the Eastern Province, and FGM was documented earlier in the 20th century among some Bedouin groups.

Women are allowed to own housing, but women who live alone are not considered "respectable" in Saudi Arabian society. By law, women are not permitted to rent housing without the presence of a mahram, even if they are moving to be closer to their place of work.

Community life for women in Saudi Arabia usually entails socializing within the family and neighborhood networks and possibly being active in a woman's charitable society. A woman's participation in a community depends entirely on her family, her family connections, her education, and her own abilities. The government does not interfere in women's social activities so long as the activity does not cause offense and does not draw attention. Saudi women influence policies and social development in their roles as teachers, doctors, social workers, journalists, university professors, investors, and even as religious scholars who write about the role of women.

Women are employed as journalists and as television presenters and producers. However, women in the media must observe the Saudi dress code and they face restrictions on the issues they can deal with as journalists.

Saudi women can be trapped in poverty due to gender if they are born poor, because it is difficult to earn a living as a woman; but women may also be rich due to gender, because of their right to inherit while being maintained by others. The Millennium Development Goals Report for Saudi Arabia states that the proportion of people living in poverty is believed to be minimal. Public and privately run programs and government subsidies, as well as Saudi culture and social traditions (family support networks) are large contributors to maintaining poverty at a low level.

All organizations must be registered with the Saudi government, which can easily shut them down without judicial recourse. There are no independent women's human rights organizations working freely to document or publicize human rights abuses against women. Women are free to advocate for women's human rights only to the extent that they do so with deference to Islam and with praise for the country's leaders, or until they are silenced by being jailed, fired from their jobs, or threatened.

However, some women's rights advocates participated in the National Dialogue Conferences of 2004. Women were also signatories to the reform petitions, which incorporated calls for women's rights, though only as part of a larger package of reform. Saudi women are not allowed to work freely with women's rights groups from other countries, and international women's groups must go through the government of Saudi Arabia in order to work with any non-government group in the country.

The causes of gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia are systemic. They are rooted in the attitudes and policies of the ruling Al Saud family. Indigenous social hierarchies and interest groups, tribal and family allegiances, and the country's interpretation of religion are also factors. A solid majority of Saudi citizens are committed to reform. In a poll of Saudi citizens conducted under the direction of Nawaf Obaid, nearly 85 percent thought that political reform would benefit the country, over 90 percent wanted to grant women more rights, and 63 percent thought women should be allowed to drive. Saudi reformers recognize how vast the problems facing democratization are, and the reform petitions put forward during 2003 emphasize the need for total reform in order for any meaningful changes to take place.


  1. The government should take steps to remove restrictions on women's access to health care information and access to health services, including eliminating the laws which require women to produce written permission from a male guardian in order to have surgery or other medical procedures.
  2. The government should guarantee women's groups the ability to work independently to promote women's rights and equality issues.

AUTHOR: Eleanor Abdella Doumato is a Visiting Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. She is a past president of the Association for Middle East Women's Studies and former editor of the Middle East Women's Studies Review. Ms. Doumato is the author of Getting God's Ear: Women, Islam and Healing in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf (Columbia Press, 2000).


[Refworld note: source files did not contain inline references to these notes; they have been included to enable further reading and research.]

1. The Quran is the holy book of Muslims, and Sunna is the tradition of the Prophet Mohammad.

2. According to a Human Rights Watch report, "There are 8.8 million foreign residents in Saudi Arabia, according to the Labour Ministry. This figure is significantly higher than any previously reported. Foreigners account for 67% of the workforce and hold 90 to 95 percent of private sector jobs." Bad Dreams: Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia (HRW, Vol. 16, No. 5[E], July 2004).

3. Wahhabism (sometimes spelled Wahabbism or Wahabism) is a movement of Islam named after Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab (1703-1792).

4. All citations of the Basic Law are from this source: http://www.mideastinfo.com/documents/Saudi_Arabia_Basic_Law.htm.

5. The Hadith are the collected sayings of the Prophet Mohammad that constitute the Sunna.

6. The family institution is a key pillar in the state's self-legitimation. Article 9 of the Basic Law says that "the family is the kernel of Saudi society, and its members shall be brought up on the basis of the Islamic faith, and loyalty and obedience to God, His Messenger, and to guardians; respect for and implementation of the law, and love of and pride in the homeland and its glorious history as the Islamic faith stipulates." Article 10 says that the "state will aspire to strengthen family ties, maintain its Arab and Islamic values and care for all its members, and to provide the right conditions for the growth of their resources and capabilities."

7. Basic Law, Article 36 (Arrest): "The state provides security for all its citizens and all residents within its territory and no one shall be arrested, imprisoned, or have their actions restricted except in cases specified by statutes."

8. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – Saudi Arabia (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 18 December 2003).

9. Ibid.

10. "Saudi Arabia: Religious Police Role in School Fire Criticized" (New York: Human Rights Watch [HRW], 15 March 2002), http://hrw.org/press/2002/03/saudischool.htm.

11. "Women Workers: Forced Confinement, Labor Exploitation, and Sexual Abuse," in Bad Dreams: Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia (HRW, Vol. 16, No. 5[E], July 2004), http://hrw.org/reports/2004/saudi0704/7.htm#_Toc75678073. See also in Bad Dreams, "Migrant Workers in the Criminal Justice System: Rights Denied," in which HRW asserts, "Saudi Arabia is obligated under its own laws and international human rights law to protect everyone on its territory from torture and ill treatment, and to afford fair trials to individuals arrested for criminal offenses. The kingdom's law of criminal procedure specifically prohibits torture and degrading treatment of persons under arrest and in detention. Saudi Arabia is also a state party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), but government authorities continue to violate its provisions with impunity."

12. Ibid.

13. "Women Workers ... ," in Bad Dreams (HRW, July 2004), http://hrw.org/reports/2004/saudi0704/7.htm#_Toc75678071.

14. Ibid. "The forced confinement of women workers violates provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which Saudi Arabia has ratified. This treaty requires state parties to 'accord to men and women the same rights with regard to the law relating to the movement of persons and the freedom to choose their residence and domicile.' The government's tolerance of the forced confinement of women workers perpetuates discrimination against women, which it is legally committed to eliminate. CEDAW obligates the government to legally protect the rights of women on an equal basis with men, and to 'ensure through competent national tribunals and other public institutions the effective protection of women against any act of discrimination.' The treaty also requires states parties to 'take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women by any person, organization or enterprise,' and 'to take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women.'"

15. "Trafficking in Persons Report" (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, 11 June 2003), http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2003/21275.htm.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. "Migrant Workers ..." in Bad Dreams (HRW, July 2004), http://hrw.org/reports/2004/saudi0704/10.htm.

19. Ibid.

20. "Saudi Arabia Remains a Fertile Ground for Torture with Impunity" (London: Amnesty International [AI] Secretariat. 1 May 2002), http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/ENGMDE230042002.

21. "Saudi Arabia: Gross Human Rights Abuses Against Women" (Amnesty International, 27 September 2000),

22. Javid Hasan, "Saudi Women Make Debut in New Professions," Arab News, 28 August 2004.

23. In 2002, there were 465,338 Saudi women employed in comparison to 2,683,381 Saudi men. "Labor Force (15 years and older) by administrative area, nationality, and sex, 2002," in Social Statistics Labor Force Survey (Riyadh: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Ministry of Economy and Planning, Central Department of Statistics), http://www.planning.gov.sa/statistic/sindexe.htm.

24. "Saudi male population not in labor force (15 years and older), 2002, and Saudi population not in labor force (15 years and older), 2002," in Social Statistics Labor Force Survey (Riyadh: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Ministry of Economy and Planning, Central Department of Statistics).

25. Table 24, "Gender-related development index," in Human Development Report 2004: Cultural Liberty in Today's Diverse World (New York: United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], 2004), 217-220. http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2004/; Table 2, "Adult and youth literacy," in Gender and Education for All: The Leap to Equality (Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO], EFA Global Monitoring Report 2003/4), p. 304.

26. Table A-2, "Net enrollment ratios in primary education by gender, 1999/2000," in Arab Human Development Report 2003 (New York: United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, 2003), 192.

27. Table A-8, "Percentage of females among tertiary education students by levels of higher education, 1999/2000," in Arab Human Development Report 2003 (UNDP), 195.

28. Basic Law, Article 43 (Royal Courts): "The King's Court and that of the Crown Prince shall be open to all citizens and to anyone who has a complaint or a plea against an injustice. Every individual shall have a right to address the public authorities in all matters affecting him."

29. Khalid Al-Dakhil, "2003 was a defining year for Saudi reform," Daily Star (Beirut), 8 April 2004.

30. "A Recent Debate on Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia," Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), 18 January 2004.

31. Women's Reproductive Health in the Middle East and North Africa (Washington, D.C.: Population Reference Bureau [PRB], 2003).

32. Table 1, "Selected Reproductive Health Indicators in the Middle East and North Africa," in Women's Reproductive Health (PRB), 4; World Development Indicators (op.cit.) gives the figure of 21 percent of women using contraception during the years 1990-99.

33. "Women Workers ..." in Bad Dreams (HRW).

34. "Millennium Development Goals: Report on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia" (United Nations, Riyadh, 2002), http://www.undp.org/mdg/saudi.pdf.

35. "Saudi Arabia: Gross Human Rights Abuses Against Women" (London: Amnesty International, 27 September 2000),

36. Nawaf Obaid, "Yes to bin Laden rhetoric; no to Al Qaeda violence," International Herald Tribune, 28 June 2004.

37. Eleanor Doumato, ed., Tailor-Made Islam: Religion, Identity and the Nation in Middle Eastern School Books (forthcoming).

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