Gender Equality in Saudi Arabia

Gender Equality in Saudi Arabia

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Evaluating the degree of gender stratification in Saudi Arabia in comparison to other Middle Eastern counties requires the inclusion of Islamic fundamentals principles in the interpretation of their moral code. Alsaleh (2012) notes the lowest rate of female education and the highest levels of gender restrictions of women are most prevalent within Middle Eastern countries that enforce Islamic doctrine. Saudi Arabia exemplifies the moral and gender-specific Islamic prohibitions through their lack of law “addressing violence against women” (Alsaleh 2012:125), noting that violent crimes against women are rarely reported for fear of reprisal, and discussing them publically is prohibited. Prohibitions against unchaperoned travel and the freedom of assembly impede Saudi women ability to exercise their civil liberties, such as voting, and the ability to congregate with other women. Gender inequality in employment is evident, as Saudi women comprise only five percent of the nation’s work force (Purdy 2011), with more than one-half of employed Saudi women holding college degrees in comparison to only 16 percent of Saudi males (Alsaleh 2012).
A review of reforms and consideration of gender equality in Saudi Arabia is available through the publication of an English-language Saudi daily newspaper and internet feed called the Arab News (Lichter 2009). The Arab News focuses on the social reforms of Saudi women including the probation against driving, domestic violence and educational inequities (Lichter 2009). The furor over Saudi driving restrictions have sparked several on-line initiatives, resulting in an 2011 driving protest in which 40 Saudi women were arrested. This action initiated a Saudi moral definition of the term “licentiousness”, describing the willful disobedience of driving. When the subject of driving restriction were evaluated, the Saudi government countered with the argument that the problem is not with women driving per see, the problem exists with the provision that women could not acquire a driver’s license as they would have to remove their facial veil for the license photo. Showing a woman’s face would be an egregious sin against Islamic law. Instead of reconsidering license photo restrictions, the Saudi government puts their spin on the subrogation of women through the insidious “protections” of Islamic fundamentalism (Lichter 2009). Saudi reform reflects challenges to the perceived inequalities that affect women but never to the interpretation and distortions of Islamic law. The basis of Saudi reform is that followers of Islam does not require them “to cover their faces or to lead a sequestered life” (Lichter 2009:284).

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Hatoon Al-Fassi, a Arabia reformist writes that “the greater independence enjoyed by women in the pre-Islamic and early Islamic periods probably have their roots in Greek and Roman rather than Arab traditions (Lichter 2009: 284).
A written survey (Alsaleh 2012) was conducted of 400 female Saudi students and health field employees evaluating their knowledge of the issue of gender equality. Almost all respondents reporting a cognitive awareness of what gender inequality was. When asked if they had ever experienced gender inequality at home or in the workplace, 89 percent of the respondents reported never having experienced gender inequality (Alsaleh 2012). When asked if Islamic principles result in gender inequality, a resounding 99 percent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with a correlation between gender inequality and Islamic principles. Many respondents strongly vocalized their displeasure with the question, asserting that following Islamic principles was the solution to problems of all kinds and has no bearing on gender inequality (Alsaleh 2012).
Assessing the subrogation of Saudi Arabian women involves levels of perceptions. While inequities obviously exist within the level of freedoms, civil rights, socio-economic control, and family dynamics, the degree to which these inequities are interpreted as disruptive and unjust vary widely. Given the Islamic foundation existing in Saudi Arabia that fuels the moral foundation of custom and societal acceptance, Saudi women perceive see their role differently than that of Western women. This difference in perception facilitates the Saudi government to purport that Saudi women can enjoy even more joy in the lives and freedom by aligning their behaviors and expectations with the teachings of Allah. The differences between control and empowerment of Saudi women becomes evident through the actions, reactions, and the level of power that the Mutawa’een (the moral police) have and utilize against Saudi women at the slightest absence of blind obedience to the establish normalcy of feminine behaviors.
While time may adjust the rigidity of Saudi Arabia’s dominance and control of the female gender, the foundation of Islam than permeates the Saudi consciousness and formulates the very foundation of their existence is destined to continue. The perceptions of Western culture can observe the gender differences existing in Saudi Arabia but cannot purport to endorse change without a cognitive understanding of the cultural specificities that motivates, and validates their beliefs, role expectations, societal worth, and family values. Change to the lives of women in Saudi Arabia must come from within, requiring a paradigm shift and a cultural destruction in Saudi cultural religious and moral belief systems. With Islam fundamentalism as its base, we can foresee a very slow progression towards the Western interpretation of equality for Saudi women.

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