In a world bombarded with headlines updated in seconds, Fake News, and Trump’s infamous Twitter account, some tweets and government actions fly under the radar. However, in September of 2017 one such Twitter post had the potential to change Saudi Society. The Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry announced on their official Twitter the royal decree to let women drive, to be implemented by the government as soon as June of 2018. This is a momentous achievement for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia because of the climate that has existed there in the last century. One of the most instrumental leaders of the “Women2Drive” campaign, Manal al-Sharif, commented, “Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop.” Her sentiments reflect the reality that this small victory could be a symptom of a changing society in Saudi Arabia, one that could actually begin to see the equality of women not only in the culture but in the workplace.
As of the Global Gender Gap Report of 2017, Saudi Arabia ranks 138th in the world out of 144 countries, and they rank 142nd in economic participation. In the 21st century, it is hard to imagine a society in which women live under the conditions that they do in Saudi Arabia. There, without the explicit permission of their male guardians, women are still unable to marry, divorce, travel, obtain a job, or even have elective surgery. In fact, throughout their lives, women are passed from the control of one legal guardian to another, each a male relative that are in charge of life-altering decisions. In some instances women even find themselves under the guardianship of their sons who they themselves raised to adulthood. Women also cannot mix freely with members of the opposite sex, except for in some hospitals and medical colleges. Workspaces that employ women have to build “separation walls” to enforce this law; this order came as recently as 2013 by authorities. Beyond guardianship and separation from the other sexes, women also may not appear in public without a full-length black abaya, conduct most business without a male sponsor, retain custody of their children in a divorce, eat at restaurants that don’t have separate family sections, get a fair hearing in court, or receive equal inheritance.
Despite a growing importance placed on girl’s education and equal access for both sexes, the education system in Saudi Arabia also continues to affect young women negatively. Statistics give insight into an interesting dynamic in Saudi Arabia. According to a 2015 report issued by the Saudi Ministry of Education, there are more Saudi women studying in universities than men. Saudi women account for 51.8 percent of university students. There were also 24,498 women pursuing graduate studies in 2015. On top of the university level statistics, the Saudi government also passed the Basic Law of Governance stating that education is compulsory between the ages 6 to 15 and that this education meets equal access and is free. In order to ensure this, the government has been increasing spending on education in the last 20 years, building infrastructure and schools. Investing in women’s education has seen great strides in Saudi’s national development as well as social and cultural. Measures of human resource development such as population growth and decreasing mortality rates, improved health and nutrition, and increasing literacy rates are all attributed to the increased education for women in the country. Although Saudi Arabia also signed and ratified the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), they hold reservations on the actual enactment of this ideal. For one, boys’ education and girls’ education is segregated and different in accordance with Shari’a Law. Although the law of the country may see girls and boys as equals, in practice a mixture of local norms, social beliefs, and patriarchal principles actually limit a women’s ability to complete her education.
Marriage and low value placed on girls’ education hamper their ability to successfully complete their education. 37% of Saudi children drop out of high school and a high percentage of girls that reach puberty drop out of school to get married. Marriage is still considered a priority for women, this affects what they are taught in school. The girls’ curriculum focuses on religious studies, the Arabic language, and domestic skills. Math, science, foreign language, and technological teaching is much less prevalent for girls. On each level of education this is the case. Even for the larger percentage of women that are attending university, they are limited in what they can study. Women’s degrees are mostly concentrated in education, human sciences, natural sciences, and Islamic studies. Despite the improved access to education, the availability of school is not enough for Saudi women because the system of education has been reinforcing gender-segregated cultural norms.
It seems as though Saudi Arabia is primed to actually begin to see gender equality. Women are in fact able to vote in local elections, be appointed to a Consultative Council, and even compete in the Olympics. So what is missing? The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia follows a very strict Wahhabi Islam that is enforced by religious police. The government and religion have been so intertwined in the last century that people began to lose sight of what is a patriarchal tradition and what is actually decreed in Islam. Under this strict interpretation, laws are being enforced that actually hurt Saudi Arabia’s economy. Female participation remains extremely low in the country at only 17.3 percent of the workforce. This contrasts the 31% of the population that is foreign labor. If Saudi Arabia was to turn inwards and focus on the huge resource that women could bring to the table, their economy would reap the benefits. New leaders in the country seem to recognize this as well. The crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is at the forefront of a plan to transform Saudi economy by 2030 by way of increasing the number of women in the workforce. He has also lobbied to curtail the power of the religious police and is in fact in part responsible for the royal decree to let women drive. This crucial first step brings hope to women for equal economic participation because it means that women now have the ability to drive themselves to a prospective job. It is small steps such as these that will inevitably lead to the incremental changes that need to take place over time in order to gradually lead to a truly equal society — a drop in what will hopefully be a long and heavy rain.