Women’s Rights Reforms in Saudi Arabia under Mohammed bin Salman
While the Western world is focused on Saudi Arabia’s multiple foreign policy crises, such as the Yemen war, ordinary Saudi citizens are trying to keep up with the rapid pace of social and cultural reforms that are being introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS.) The latest reform, which was announced on September 27th, has relaxed the Kingdom’s mandatory conservative dress code for tourists. While this reform only applies to visiting non-Saudi women, it is important to Saudi women because of the introduction of new societal implications. Looking at the pace and direction of social reforms that MbS has initiated since 2016, it is likely that the relaxation of dress code for tourist women can serve as a prelude to easing dress restrictions for Saudi women.
Few Saudi women have already been resisting cultural dress restrictions that have been imposed for decades by the government–most infamously, the niqab. In 2018, a social media hashtag in Arabic #النقاب_تحت_رجلي began gaining traction on Twitter. Translating directly to “the niqab under my feet,” it symbolizes a generational movement of some young Saudi women resisting both governmental oppression and traditional familial norms when it comes to policing clothing. One Twitter user proclaimed: “[niqab] wasn’t a choice for me & it isn’t for many girls in my country.” At the same time, various opinion polls show that another segment of Saudi women remain highly supportive of the conservative dress code for women and gender segregation in public space.
Development of Saudi women’s rights
Women’s rights reforms in Saudi Arabia did not begin with King Salman and MbS. The first significant change took place in 1955 when the first school for girls was established. In 1970, as reproductive rights in the Western world were being fought over in legal and social settings, the first university for women in Saudi Arabia was opened: The Riyadh College of Education. The incremental progress made in the 20th century for women’s rights was minimal and aside from access to education, women were deprived of most social, political and legal rights. Some important but limited gender reforms were introduced during King Abdallah’s reign, increasing women’s political and economic rights and enhanced their access to higher education. Women were issued national ID cards for the first time in 2001, and the first female vice-minister was appointed in 2009.
Yet, in 2015, when King Salman began his reign, the legal and social rights of women in Saudi Arabia lagged behind many Middle Eastern countries. Despite these gradual and uneven reforms, Saudi women had achieved high levels of education and social awareness (with literacy rates of more than 90% for young women) and exceeded men in university enrollment. On the other hand, they were treated as legal minors and all aspects of their lives were still controlled by their male guardians. As a result, the Saudi ruling regime faced strong international criticism for gender discrimination and oppression of women.
MbS reforms since 2016
The social and cultural reforms that reduce gender discrimination are part of MbS’s long term development strategy known as Vision 2030. Under this 2016 program, women were granted the right to drive in June 2018. For many individuals, this was seen as a major achievement. To a large segment of Saudi women, this reform not only put an end to unfair social discrimination, but it also made it affordable for them to engage in business activities and accept employment opportunities. Under the driving ban, some women had to forgo work opportunities because the commute with a taxi or a private driver was too expensive.
For many Saudi women, the right to drive has been the most monumental change, as it affects the lives of all types of women, privileged and poor. On a more personal level, these changes have brought about a new level of respect from men who may view them more as equals now.
From an economic standpoint, the reforms have made the Saudi industries more modern and created more jobs for Saudi nationals. The Saudi government has also taken some steps to improve the work environment for women and create more job opportunities for them. In January 2019, the Kingdom announced the Women in the Workplace initiative, requiring equal pay for equal work. Women make up approximately 20% of the Saudi domestic labor force but earn 54% of what men make for equivalent work, so this will be a major improvement.
Other components of this initiative are designed to make the work environment more hospitable and safe for women within the context of Islamic norms and values. Unlike the past, the new initiative does not demand complete gender segregation of the work environment. Instead, it requires that the employers that have female employees provide a cubicle for any woman that requests one. Therefore a female employee has the option to work in a mixed-gender office or in a private cubicle. The employer is also obligated to make sure at least two female employees are working in any mixed-gender work area so that no woman is alone with a group of male co-workers. Furthermore, a series of bureaucratic and governance reforms have made the lives of women legally and economically easier by increasing the efficiency of government services.
Another important reform was introduced in August 2019 when women were allowed to apply for a passport and travel without the permission of a male guardian. Prior to this reform, Saudi civil law considered women as legal minors. Therefore, a Saudi woman required the permission of her father or husband to travel. In that month, women were also granted the right to apply for a birth certificate for their children or a death certificate for a deceased immediate relative–two legal rights that were available only to men before this reform.
These and several other related components of the Women in the Workplace initiative will make the work environment not only more acceptable to women, but also to their male relatives. As a result, more families are likely to allow young women to work. The government plans to raise the share of women in the labor force to 30% by 2030. In another step toward achieving this target, the Saudi government is promoting women-only industrial parks and workspaces, which will appeal to more conservative women with a preference for a segregated work environment.
Risks and Vulnerabilities
The Saudi government has introduced its women’s rights reforms of MbS in an authoritarian setting in which public opinion cannot be freely expressed. In such an environment, these reforms might face a number of risks that should not be neglected. First, there are many indications that the public opinion on these reforms is both diverse and intense. While there is strong majority support for women’s right to work and education among both men and women, a 2013 opinion poll showed that on some women’s rights issues (such as the right to drive), a majority of women were opposed to lifting the ban.
Public opinion is consequential in Saudi Arabia, even when it cannot be openly expressed. If a large segment of a society remains skeptical about a new law or social policy that is imposed from above, women might not be able to benefit from them because of social and family norms. Hence the Saudi government must pay attention to public opinion and try to gain public support for these reforms through education and media campaigns.
Second, since these reforms are closely associated with MbS, their success and sustainability may be linked to his political power and the duration of his rule. If he loses some of his immense political powers, the more conservative factions in the Saudi royal family might restrict some of these reforms. This is important because according to a recent news report, a growing number of the royal family members and business elite are concerned about the leadership and policies of MbS. These concerns are primarily focused on MbS’s foreign policy initiatives, such as the Yemen war, the Qatar crisis and the escalating proxy war with Iran. Furthermore, the conservative mainstream clerics and the Islamist movements, which have both been co-opted and silenced on MbS’s reforms, might then become vocal in opposing them.
Nevertheless, even if there is any resistance or slowdown to further reforms on women’s rights, what has been achieved in the past three years is very significant. The Saudi government can reduce the vulnerability of these reforms by providing more space for public debate about them and making a strong effort to change the minds of the skeptics and opponents, rather than simply imposing them as royal decrees from above. Otherwise, the skeptics will portray the reforms as imposition of Western norms, which can undermine the Islamic values of the Saudi society.