Women in Saudi Arabia: Too little, too late
Saudi women wait for their drivers outside a shopping mall in Riyadh. (Getty Images)
September 28th, 2011
12:27 PM ET

Women in Saudi Arabia: Too little, too late

Editor's Note: Ed Husain is a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The following is reprinted with the permission of the Council on Foreign Relations.

By Ed Husain, CFR.org

It tells us much about the modern media and blogosphere when we get excited about news from Saudi Arabia that essentially means very little. Can women in Saudi Arabia run for office in this Thursday’s municipal elections? No. Can they vote? No. But a post-dated political check by an ailing monarch has made global headlines. And yet, a woman sentenced to ten lashes today in Jeddah for violating a driving ban has received no media attention (thus far).

King Abdullah, by all accounts a relative reformer, promised over a decade ago that he would “open all doors for Saudi women to enable them to make their full contributions to the nation…which is in great need of them,” yet to this day in Saudi Arabia women cannot work in most sectors. In 1961, the first elementary schools for girls were opened in Saudi Arabia by King Saud, ushering in an age of hope that women would be educated, work and enjoy equal status. Fifty years later, that promise is yet to be realized.

I lived in Saudi Arabia in 2005, when King Abdullah had recently taken the throne. He regularly spoke about the need to bring about full human rights in a country that treats six million foreigners as modern-day slaves, refuses Christians and Jews places of worship, and subjects its own women to second-class status. The king’s speeches gained coverage in the western media. But where it mattered, in Friday prayer gatherings inside the country, conservative clerics would undermine the king’s commitment among the population.

In a city as liberal as Jeddah, I regularly heard Friday sermons at vast gatherings where the preacher complained that human rights were, essentially, rights for homosexuals. In a country with a vibrant underground gay community, that accusation was serious for discrediting the king’s agenda among a wider conservative population. Six years later, human rights violations in Saudi Arabia remain daily occurrences (today’s court verdict is a case in point).

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Based on that track record, such promises of voting in four years’ time carry little weight. If the king were serious, the change could be made much, much sooner. Moreover, how can women stand in municipal elections and campaign when it remains illegal for Saudi women to display their faces in public? Under strict Wahhabist rules, they must cover their faces in public. The nominal participation of women in elections is a cosmetic change when Saudi women are still segregated in public from men, cannot travel without male chaperones inside or outside of the country, cannot inherit at an equal rate to men, are not allowed to drive, and remain forbidden from pursuing most occupations.

Voting rights must come within a fuller and more urgent package of reform in Saudi Arabia. Changing Saudi male and clerical attitudes towards women helps the kingdom shift its approach towards scripture from literalism and rigidity to pluralism, depth, and context. This shift not only helps advance the status of Saudi women and therefore Saudi Arabia’s standing in the modern world, but it will also help heal the country’s many other ailments, including intolerance and extremism.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Ed Husain.

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Topics: Human Rights • Politics • Saudi Arabia • Women

soundoff (117 Responses)
  1. shea

    I'm sick of CNN allowing misinformation to be posted on their site! My husband is Saudi, he grew up there, and while he does not agree with some of their politics or theology (he no longer practices Islam), I think he has accurate info on this subject. Namely that women in Saudia CAN vote and are allowed to be on the municipal councils (there is one in Jeddah if not currently then in the recent past)! My sister-in-law (still a practicing Muslim) doesn't even want to drive. Why would she when she has a private driver to navigate the crazy streets for her? I am very much an advocate for women's rights but in this case the mark is slightly off. I think there are lots of things that must be changed in Saudi Arabia but at least get your facts straight!

    September 29, 2011 at 8:42 am | Reply
    • Sam

      Take off your burqa. If your SIL doen't want to drive, good for her. What about all the women who want to? Offcourse, your husband being a Saudi must have peppered your ears with all the good things you would like to hear. If you have a daughter, let's see how he brings her up and let's see if he would allow her to marry a non muslim if she wants to.

      September 29, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Reply
  2. duh

    50% of the population are woman! Why don't they stand up to their husbands/brothers? Where are all the feminists of the world? How sad for those people, no future for half the population, living like it is 2000 BC.

    September 29, 2011 at 9:47 am | Reply
  3. Thom

    Having lived in Jeddah for some time I applaud these women for their courageous stand. This is what a real "grass roots" movement is all about. I wish them success in their efforts as it could have a very profound effect on the future of Saudi Arabia. They are facing danger bravely in an effort to secure basic rights. I hope that the government will react differently to this movement than it has to similar movements in the past. Perhaps this time it will be different because the whole world is watching. Administering the lash to women on Fridays in the public square will not sit well with most of us and the Saudi regime will face sound condemnation if it goes down that path.

    September 29, 2011 at 10:00 am | Reply
  4. Questioner

    Seems to be a bit inconsistent to require women to be covered to avoid having them be displayed to others then punish them publically by lashing in front of others....

    September 29, 2011 at 10:51 am | Reply
  5. KC

    I bet you if the oil ever dried up in any of these Arab nations, people (especially Amerians) would stop caring about what happens there. just my $.02

    September 29, 2011 at 10:52 am | Reply
    • KC

      thats Americans...typo..my bad. Don't criticize me for bad spelling since i know thats what everyone does on here.

      September 29, 2011 at 10:53 am | Reply
  6. Aaron

    Well I can agree with not letting them drive..... Everything else is crazy though.

    September 29, 2011 at 11:32 am | Reply
  7. KK

    Saudi Arabia is the biggest socialist (islamic) country standing today......or maybe China.

    September 29, 2011 at 11:34 am | Reply
  8. KaleMiami

    For many people, when they think of Muslim dress, they think of the headscarf. Or, hijab, as it’s come to be known. There is some debate in the Muslim world over whether or not the headscarf is required of women – but what is required by the Qur’an is that both men and women dress modestly. That they not draw unwanted attention to themselves and that they set themselves apart from others in the way they dress.

    Women's dress in Islamic culture is based on a principle of female modesty. Customs of the time, place, and social class of the woman influence what she might wear. Some options include hijab - or modest, loose clothing and a scarf over the head and under the chin - and burqa or burka, a more complete covering of the head, face and body. Virgin Mary Peace upon her, wore a form of Hijab or modest clothing. Nuns still do it now days.

    The only verse in the Quran that refers to women's Hijab is a reference to pull their cloaks that is around and over their heads to cover their exposing and private body parts.

    “O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognized and not annoyed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful.” (Quran 33:59)

    For women – that has often come down to the headscarf, but that’s only the most visible manifestation of this requirement to dress modestly.

    Men, too, must dress modestly. Although, again, what that means is often defined culturally –

    September 29, 2011 at 11:37 am | Reply
    • Sam

      "O' Prophet tell your WIVES.....and the women of believers.....". Why are women on non believers forced to wear a sack in Saudi? And if the women don't want to wear a sack? What does Allah have to say about that? Beat them up?
      Don't try to justify the treatment of women in Saudi.

      September 29, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Reply
  9. Eduardo

    Comparing societies! That's ridiculous! Pack up and move to Arab countries!

    September 29, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Reply
  10. GCB

    It is a sad commentary on our world today to see such a pathetic sight, where a country treats half its citizens as sub humans for being of the other gender. We of the civilized world should be horrified.

    September 29, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Reply
  11. aizen

    and this is one of america greatest ally??? the irony is america pretends to defend democracy and freedom but will be ready to sacrify it for oil and turn blind eye to the evil of this so call kingdom...they are trying to bring those changes cus they know, the saoud winter, spring whatever is next....this regime will fall one day...

    September 29, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Reply
    • KC

      Agreed. When their oil is gone, so is all their money, power, influence and defense from powerful nations.

      September 29, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  12. Jen

    Please remember, not all Muslims are Saudis. And not all Saudis are crazy.

    September 29, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Reply
  13. Stan

    Can you imagine trying to verify someone's ID using a drivers' license photo? They'd all be practically identical.

    September 29, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Reply
    • Sam

      That's why they are not allowed to drive.

      September 29, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Reply
  14. us1776

    The 12th century is alive and well in Saudi Arabia.



    September 29, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Reply
    • Sam

      It's the 7th century. Not the 12th

      September 29, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Reply
  15. Kay

    God help them now.

    September 29, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Reply
  16. saopaco

    Cultural relativism be damned! Saudi Arabia sounds like a hellhole. When women are treated equally, that is when their country will be worth visiting.

    September 29, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Reply
  17. Annia

    I have a simple question. If and when Saudi women are allow to drive, how are they going to take their driver license pictures? Just wondering...

    September 29, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Reply
  18. Mandie Grace Taylor

    There have been first hand accounts of women in the military during H.W. Bush inspired squirmish against Hussein having to keep out of sight of saudi men – because their dress was considered a perversion to Allah. It was a big deal – women sent there to stop Saddam from absconding their country and resources and the Kuwaitis and the Saudis telling the US military to keep US women in sequestered camps and US women in their military garb were never to approach a Saudi or Kuwaiti man.

    September 29, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  19. T klimchuk

    This is just smoke and mirrors from the Saudi King probly hired an expensive advertising firm from madison ave The Saudi king has said that woman in his country will be allowed to vote and run for office to under their law a woman is only worth 1/2 of what a man is worth so her vote will be meaningless anyways

    September 30, 2011 at 7:02 am | Reply
  20. janaki

    This is a very well written artcle
    KaleMiami, You talk about islamic dress being for modestly and provide 33.59 to support your claims. 33.59 does not talk of modesty. Read it again. It asks a muslim woman to cover herself so that she is recognized and left alone. That sounds to me like segregation – Mark a person and keep them seperate. Basically this verse is a half baked instruction that does not address the main problem of abuse, There is no verse that tells the men to stop annoying and abusing the women.

    September 30, 2011 at 10:11 am | Reply
  21. sara aykers

    There are plenty of Americans who lived in the kingdom for decades.. and American women who actually talk to Saudi women... like the fabulous ladies of the Al Nadha Society.

    I am NOT impressed with Ed Hussain.

    September 30, 2011 at 10:22 am | Reply
  22. janaki


    September 30, 2011 at 10:27 am | Reply
  23. johnny

    We may not have long to wait to see it happen UNLESS the Saudia Kingdom allows more freedom to its people. They should understand that the only way for their Kingdom to survive the 21st century is by becoming a democratic society. The days of the Sheiks are numbered. The domino effect of the Arab Spring will reach Saudi Arabia soon rather never.

    October 3, 2011 at 1:07 am | Reply
  24. robthom

    "Can women in Saudi Arabia run for office in this Thursday’s municipal elections? No. Can they vote? No."

    And god bless them for it.

    Thats why the murikans hate the Muslims, because they dont let their women walk all over them and treat them like chumps.

    October 18, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Reply
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    November 18, 2011 at 1:28 am | Reply
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