City of Medina, Saudi Arabia
City of Medina, Saudi Arabia


Credit: Alexandra Ben Othman

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–On April 14 Saudi Prince Al Waleed Bin Sultan, the progressive nephew of King Abdullah, made world news by arguing on behalf of the campaign to permit women to drive cars inside the kingdom.

“(The question of) women driving will result in dispensing with at least 500,000 foreign drivers, and that has an economic and social impact for the country,” the prince said on Twitter.

Two days later, the online Saudi English-language daily newspaper reported that a female reporter had chipped away at the country’s gender-apartheid barrier. She was allowed to cover for the first time sessions of the Shura Council, which since 1927 has advised the king on important matters. Hayat Al-Ghamdi, a reporter from the regional Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat, was granted permission after she said her paper made persistent requests for approval.

But this and other bits of news don’t change the relatively recent cultural practices that make Saudi Arabia one of the world’s most restrictive nations for women and have driven some Saudi women to seek a life abroad. In recent interviews two such women talked about why they don’t consider returning to their homeland.

Sarah–whose last name is not disclosed for safety reasons–left the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia more than six years ago. Without a word to her family she flew to New York to join the African-American man she loved. Now she is married to him, has two children and lives in Doha, Qatar.

She hasn’t ever gone back.

If she does, she said she could be arrested and thrown in jail for defying the ultra-conservative monarchy’s restrictions on female autonomy. Her transgressions: not telling her father that she was leaving the country and marrying without her family’s consent.

“My father didn’t speak to me for three years initially because he, of course, was extremely upset,” she said in a recent Skype interview.

By now her mother’s side of the family–non-Muslim Iranian-Indians–know she is married. But her father’s side of the family is still in the dark. “They still think that I am living in New York, doing a Ph.D.”

That’s why she doesn’t want to be identified. If case her family secret gets out, she might also face retaliation from Saudi authorities if she ever returned to visit her family.

Marriage and Travel Penalties

Sarah’s story demonstrates the penalties a woman still faces for breaking Islamic laws that prevent her from marrying without her father’s approval and traveling without formal permission from her male guardian.

Last year the government introduced an electronic system able to track women and send automatic text messages to male guardians if a woman tries to leave the country.

Sarah said she was arrested three times by the Mutaween, the government-run religious police. Dressed in their traditional ankle-length “thobes”–loose, long-sleeved white cotton garments with long flowing scarves that are either white or red-and-white-checked–the Mutaween enforce the Saudi strict gender rules and are often reinforced by police escorts and “volunteers.”

She said they arrested her for “minor things,” such as not having her face covered or standing up to them in a shopping mall. She said she spent two nights in jail. When she was getting arrested she recalls that people around her–including women–sided with her arrestors. “They were screaming at me ‘cover your face’ or ‘listen to what they say, this is Islam.’ “

The religious police, Sarah said, illustrate how a male-dominated theocracy has distorted Islam, which, in her view, supports women’s rights. “The religious police has played a brilliant role in destroying our understanding of Islam through altered conservative Islamic beliefs. As long as they have power and they are around, I strongly believe that we will not progress.”

Outward signs of progress, however, do keep making headlines.

‘The Women’s King’

In 2011 King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud granted women the right to vote and run in 2015 elections, earning him the deep affection of women’s rights activists, some of whom call him “the women’s king” and regard him as the best king the country has ever had.

The king has promoted women’s rights in a variety of ways, including granting women to study abroad and opening the way for women to hold new high-level posts in government, including in the Saudi intelligence agency.

Last February, 30 Saudi women joined the formerly all-male Shura Council. In accordance with the widespread rules of gender segregation, they enter the council building through special gates and sit in seats reserved for women.

Women are also now free to ride bicycles, a leading Saudi newspaper reported April 1. Within several limits: head-to-toe coverings, male guardian accompaniment, only in restricted areas and for recreation, not transportation.

In the 1960s the late King Faisal established the first schools for girls over the opposition of social conservatives. Ever since, women in the oil-rich monarchy have been earning advanced degrees and but still suffer of a high 34 percent jobless rate, The Washington Post has reported.

Dana, a Saudi-American surgeon who lives in New York, was born in the United States and pursued her education in Canada before going back to Saudi Arabia to start her practice. She moved to New York a couple of years ago after deciding that she was not happy in the Saudi workplace.

She returns regularly for family visits and doesn’t actual mind the ban on female driving. “I see it as a privilege to have had somebody to drive you around,” she said.

The campaign to end the custom that bars women from driving is fueled by women who have limited incomes and resent spending money they can’t afford on male drivers, she says. In Dana’s case, the family can easily afford a driver so it doesn’t bother her.

What bothers an affluent woman such as her, she says, is the way women’s identities are defined by the male-dominated society.

“Women are not regarded as individuals who have their own right to think and also choose for themselves, their mind has to be attached to a man,” she said in an interview at a cafe in New York. “Either it is husband, father or a brother. This has to change.”

But Dana doubts this will change soon, even if Prince Salman, the former defense minister considered to be the favored candidate, succeeds the king.

“Things have to change from the people and not the rulers,” Dana said. “I used to believe that most women wanted their rights openly but it is not the case. The majority is very traditional, which is quite sad.”

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