While women in most countries are fighting for total gender equality, Middle Eastern women have very long way to go. For decades, Saudi women have been unable to make major decisions without the permission of a male “wali” – an official guardian, typically a father, brother, uncle or husband – in what Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called “the most significant impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country”.
However, the status of women in Saudi Arabia is changing, albeit slowly. In May 2017, activists won a small but significant victory when Saudi’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud issued an order specifying that women did not need permission from their male guardian for some activities, including entering university, taking a job and undergoing surgery.
Saudi Arabia has lifted some restrictions on women traveling in the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom with new guidelines allowing women to rent hotel rooms without a male guardian’s presence, and foreign men and women to share a room without proof of marriage.
The latest changes follow the launch last year of a much-publicized liberalization drive by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, who wants to modernize the petro-state by reducing restrictions on cultural expression and women’s rights.
Women’s rights groups in the country have also lobbied for the end of the guardianship system, often using the social media hashtag “#IAmMyOwnGuardian”.
The legal status of women in the modern Middle East has been in transition since the early part of the twentieth century. Customary laws, Islamic laws, imported European laws, and reformed versions of Islamic laws affect women in” Varying degrees in the different Middle Eastern legal systems, and the status of women does not seem to have been settled in any of them.
Islamic law itself has many provisions that leave women at a clear disadvantage – an irony of history, since these same provisions at the time of their promulgation in seventh century Arabia originally advanced women’s rights vis-a-vis the then existing norms.
Under traditional Islamic law, child marriages were allowed; a girl could be forced into marriage by a qualified male relation. While a woman could marry only one man at a time, men were allowed up to four wives and an unlimited number of concubines. Women were legally required to be submissive and obedient to their husbands; were they not, their husbands were entitled to beat them and to suspend all maintenance payments. Obedience included never leaving the house without the husband’s blessings; a husband could get the assistance of the police to forcibly return his wife to the marital home if she were absent without his leave. Her contacts with persons outside the family were similarly subject to restriction at her husband’s wishes.
White Islamic law schools have differed in the details of their rules of divorce, women often could not obtain a divorce unless their husbands cooperated. In contrast, a husband was able to divorce a wife anytime simply by uttering a divorce formula. Observation of actual cases suggests that many husbands tended to abuse this extremely easy method of divorce, which led to a great deal of insecurity and anxiety for many wives. Divorced women often found themselves in poverty, because Islamic law required the husband to support children from the marriage permanently, but his divorced wife only until the expiration of three menstrual cycles after the pronouncement of the divorce (or delivery of a baby if she were pregnant). In addition, women inherited only one-half the amount of males. This discrimination is somewhat mitigated by the fact that males alone were supposed to bear the expenses of maintaining their wives, children and households, and seems less severe when one recalls that under many of the regimes of customary law that have prevailed to this day in the Middle East, women inherit nothing.
The provisions of Islamic law affecting women have been jealously guarded over the centuries, in part because so many of them are set forth in the text of the Qur’an, regarded by Muslims as the eternally valid Speech of God to mankind.
One sees the impact that Islamic fundamentalism can have on women’s status in Iran, where in the wake of the Islamic Revolution most of the legal reforms benefiting women have been cancelled and women have been relegated to traditional roles in the home. Women are now subject to harsh criminal penalties if they let so much as a single lock of hair show in public.
However, while many feminists in the Middle East have denounced the policies of the Iranian government, it is not unusual to find women who support the fundamentalists’ demands and voluntarily adopt the behavior they call for. For many women in the Middle East, equality with men and personal freedom do not seem to be meaningful goals. In the minds of many women, equality and freedom have become associated with undesirable aspects of Westernization – having to perform full-time jobs both in the workplace and in the home, the disintegration of the family, the decline of morality, and, ultimately, social breakdown. Many see in women’s liberation a Western plot to undermine native culture so as to facilitate Western political and economic penetration of Middle Eastern societies. In contrast, the principles of Islamic law as promoted by fundamentalists seem to offer stability, security, and a way of preserving cultural identity and integrity.
Yet women in Saudi Arabia are still subject to a myriad of restrictions on everyday life. Here are some of them:
Wear clothes or make-up that “show off their beauty“
The dress code for women is governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law and is enforced to varying degrees across the country. The majority of women wear an abaya – a long cloak – and a head scarf. But this does not stop the religious police from harassing women for exposing what they consider to be too much flesh or wearing too much make-up.
In July 2017, a prominent cleric called for even more modesty, urging the nation’s “daughters” to avoid “any abaya that has any decorations… No embellishment, no slits, no openings”.
Two weeks later, a video circulated on social media showing an anonymous Saudi woman walking around a deserted fort north of Riyadh wearing a miniskirt, in seeming defiance of such strict regulations on women’s clothing. The clip sparked a heated debate in the country, with conservatives demanding her arrest pitted against reformers applauding her bravery. The woman was summoned for questioning by police, but later released without charge.
Interact with men
Women are required to limit the amount of time spent with men to whom they are not related. The majority of public buildings, including offices, banks and universities have separate entrances for the different sexes.
Public transportation, parks, beaches and amusement parks are also segregated in most parts of the country. Unlawful mixing can lead to criminal charges being brought against both parties, but women typically face harsher punishment.
Compete freely in sports
In 2015, Saudi Arabia proposed hosting an Olympic Games without women. “Our society can be very conservative,” said Prince Fahad bin Jalawi al-Saud, a consultant to the Saudi Olympic Committee. “It has a hard time accepting that women can compete in sports.”
When Saudi Arabia sent female athletes to the Olympics for the first time, at London 2012, hard line clerics denounced the two competitors as “prostitutes”. The women also had to be accompanied by a male guardian and cover their hair.
However, in September 2017, Saudi Arabia’s national stadium welcomed its first ever female spectators. Women were assigned their own section in the normally male-only venue to watch celebrations marking the anniversary of the founding of Saudi Arabia.
Try on clothes when shopping
“The mere thought of a disrobed woman behind a dressing-room door is apparently too much for men to handle,” says Vanity Fair writer Maureen Dowd in an article headlined “A girl’s guide to Saudi Arabia”.
Other more unusual restrictions on women’s lives include entering a cemetery and reading an uncensored fashion magazine. However, adds Dowd, everything in Saudi Arabia “operates on a sliding scale, depending on who you are, whom you know, whom you ask, whom you’re with, and where you are”. But things are slowly beginning to modernize. “Saudi Arabia is the world’s most gender-segregated nation, but amid changes now under way, multiple generations of women are debating how to be truly modern and truly Saudi,” says National Geographic.
Iran women to attend football match freely for first time in decades
Thousands of Iranian women fans attended a football match freely on Oct 10 for the first time in decades, after Fifa threatened to suspend the country over its controversial male-only policy. Those lucky enough to attend will be segregated from men and watched over by 150 female police officers
The Islamic republic barred female spectators from football and other stadiums for around 40 years, with clerics arguing they must be shielded from the masculine atmosphere and sight of semi-clad men.
World football’s governing body Fifa ordered Iran last month to allow women access to stadiums after a fan dubbed “Blue Girl” died after setting herself on fire in fear of being jailed for dressing up as a boy to attend a match Her death sparked an outcry, with many calling for Iran to be banned and matches boycotted.
Ms Raha Poorbakhsh, a football journalist says “I still can’t believe this is going to happen because after all these years of working in this field, watching everything on television, now I can experience everything in person,” she told AFP.
Mr Nader Fathi, who runs a clothing business, said the presence of women could improve the atmosphere in stadiums “they will regret it if they are exposed to really bad swear words and bad behavior”.
The ban on women in stadiums is not written into law or regulations, but it has been strictly enforced. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, women have only had rare access to stadiums in Iran. About 20 Irish women attended a World Cup qualifier in 2001, and four years later a few dozen Iranian women watched the national team take on Bahrain.
In October, as many as 100 “handpicked” Iranian women watched a friendly against Bolivia. The day after, the prosecutor general warned there would be no repeat, saying it would “lead to sin”.
Reformists have welcomed the latest move, but conservatives have come out strongly against it.
The bumpy road Iranian women have traveled in order to gain free access to stadiums has not been without tragedy.
What makes the changes faster and harder to resist is that in the past two years they have been backed up by a change in regulations and royal decrees. This includes lifting the driving ban on Saudi women in September 2017 – implemented in June 2018 – and the latest change on travel.
The latter change has positive implications for the structure of the family. Within a family, travelling should be a choice. Reaching this level of equality means the relationship between a woman and her father, husband or brother, should be based on trust, open communication and a sense of responsibility.
The new rule means the relationship between a husband and his wife becomes a partnership between two responsible adults, rather than guardianship of a minor. The new direction puts women in a place where they can gain individuality and confidence in ability to take care of themselves.
Since obtaining their independence from Europe, most Middle Eastern governments have undertaken legal reforms directed at reducing the inequalities between men and women, but they have had to face strong opposition from Muslim clerics (the ulama or fuqaha) as well as from other conservative religious forces, who charge them with violating the Divine Law. The greatest progress in law reform has been thus achieved by governments which were least dependent on the good will of the Muslim clergy. Women achieved something approximating legal equality with men under the forceful leadership of the charismatic nationalist heroes Kemal Ataturk (in Turkey in the 1920s) and Habib Bourguiba (in Tunisia in the 1950s), under the Shah of Iran in the 1960s, and in the Marxist states of the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of South Yemen and Somalia in the 1970s.
Until very recently, it seemed it was just a matter of time before women achieved equality with men. The Islamic fundamentalist movement has campaigned to forestall any legal changes that might undermine male domination and privilege in the family and to eliminate reforms that have enhanced women’s rights – a campaign which invokes traditional interpretations of Islamic law as its justification. Many, although by no means all, Islamic fundamentalists are calling for rigid sexual segregation and the restriction of women to the roles of wife and mother. Their goals include eliminating coeducation and setting up special curricula to train women for lives as housewives, removing women from jobs outside the home, limiting their political role, prohibiting birth control and abortion (both of which were permissible according to most medieval jurists of Islam, who did not see in these practices any threat to morality or traditional sex roles), removing women from the legal profession and the judiciary, and imposing rigid dress codes designed to insure that no man outside a woman’s immediate family sees more than her hands and face.
The legal status of women in the Middle East is currently unstable and problematic. It is clear that whatever progress was made in the area of women’s rights is not irreversible. The previous situation, where a Westernized political elite imposed legal reforms on societies that were still largely very traditional, may now be reversed. In the wake of the Iranian example, some Middle Eastern governments are seeking to reassign an inferior legal status to women at a time when an ever-growing segment of their societies has been influenced by the women’s liberation movement in the West. Under these circumstances it seems certain that the legal status of women in the Middle East will remain a hotly contested issue.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.