News | Gender Relations - Middle East The Status of Women in Saudi Arabia

Transition, tradition, controversies, and political oppression


Saudi Arabia tries to convey an image of modernity and progress to the outside world. However, many changes are superficial and the women’s rights movement remains at the centre of many political and social struggles (a young couple in Mecca). CC BY-SA 4.0, Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Mohammed Tawsif Salam

On an international level, there is a dominant perception of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and in particular, of the status of women in Saudi Arabia. Today, the Saudi regime is trying to change this perception and “rebrand” itself abroad by reproducing a new vision of the modern Saudi woman. Young and educated Saudi women—more than a half of Saudi university students are female—are now the ideal ambassadors of the “Saudi modernization process” and of the “new and moderate” Saudi state. However, reality proves to be far more complicated in an authoritarian religious monarchy with an oil-dependent economy and a latent financial crisis.

Aliki Kosyfologou has a Ph.D. in Political Science and Sociolog. Her research focuses on political analysis, social theory, gender theory, feminist politics, and culture. Recent publications include The Gendered Aspects of the Austerity Regime in Greece: 2010–2017, Women’s Status in a Struggling Greek Economy: The Terrifying Fall of a Society’s Progress, and Vulnerable Equality in Times of a Pandemic.

The arrest, imprisonment, and severe mistreatment during the incarceration of the feminist political activists who led the anti-guardianship campaign and the women’s driving campaign in 2018—the year of Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination –- have seriously challenged this “rebranding” strategy and harmed the public profile of the Crown Prince, who has eagerly promoted himself as a reformist. Nevertheless, some of the legislative reforms introduced in the country since 2017 are more than another communication strategy the regime uses to impress the international community, and instead are a result of growing social demands and feminist mobilization.

Transforming the Status of Women? The Law and the Saudi Vision 2030

Women have always been important as subjects of protection, control, and state policy to the 80-year-old Saudi Arabian State. The introduction of universal female education in the 1960s when combined with the economic developments of the 1970s created advances for women. These advances allowed women to pursue professional careers in the education and healthcare sectors and even encouraged the formation of a class of intellectual Saudi women who laid the foundations for Saudi feminist political activism. Nonetheless, in the 1980s, with the impact of the Iranian Revolution in the region and the domestic crisis caused by the seizure of the Grand Mosque in 1979, the Saudi state became radically more religious. This weakened the social and legal status of women significantly and led to the establishment of an ultra-conservative misogynist system where women were left with the legal capacity of a minor.

The legislative reforms introduced in the past three years represent an attempt to transform the legal status of women. The lifting of the ban on women’s driving in 2018, the gradual easing of the male guardianship laws in 2019, and the right for women to vote and run as candidates in regional and municipal elections since 2015 are without any doubt significant legal changes that have positively affected the position of women in Saudi society.

The development of more employment opportunities for women in the public and the private sector—in line with the directives of the Saudi Vision 2030 which aims to create more than one million jobs for women by 2030—has increased the participation of women in the labour market, especially in urban centres. One of the main goals of Vision 2030 is to increase women’s participation in the workforce to 30 percent. According to data from World Bank, the labour force participation rate of Saudi women rose from 20 percent in 2018, to 33 percent by the end of 2020.

The desegregation process of public spaces and the development of women-only working spaces also facilitated the entry of Saudi women into the male-dominated labour market. However, as far as this last point is concerned, current women’s employment status in Saudi Arabia is also a result of the gradual transformation of the labour market for Saudis in Saudi Arabia. It’s not long since the state was the almost exclusive employer of male Saudi citizens.

At the same time, an essential portion of the Saudi population depended on welfare provisions. The financial crisis and the reduction of state privileges for Saudi citizens, such as the increase in the annual cost of public utilities, has led many Saudis to seek employment in the private sector. The “Saudization law”, or Nitaqat, is a policy implemented by the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources whereby foreign companies in KSA are obligated to hire Saudi nationals on a quota basis. Although this is a policy introduced in the 1980s, its implementation is considered of great importance because of the new economic and social circumstances in the country, including the development of more employment opportunities for women.

Another important aspect of Saudi Arabia’s “public image strategy” is the participation of women in public life. In this context, the appointment of thirteen women—all prominent Saudi intellectuals—as members of the Shura Council in 2013 and the appointment of Reema bint Bandar Al Saud as consulate general of Saudi Arabia’s embassy in the US was presented in the Saudi media as milestones reached in the advancement of women in Saudi society. Two more appointments of female Saudi officials as consulate generals in Sweden and Iceland followed in 2020. Women scientists, athletes, writers, and artists celebrated by the media complete this new westernized image of the country. In addition to this, the no-longer-compulsory wearing of the black abaya is also presented as a reflection of social change in the KSA.

Beyond the Reform: Reality, Practice, and the “Resilient” Male Guardianship System

What lies behind the popular images—often reproduced by popular Saudi media—of young women with laptops and colourful fashionable abayas enjoying beverages in the modern cafes and shopping malls of Saudi cities? What are the current social practices that reflect women’s role in society? And, most importantly, is emancipation possible for women who live under an authoritarian regime that systematically persecutes and abuses human rights advocates, journalists, and feminist activists?

Women still face several forms of discrimination on a legal and social level in Saudi Arabia. Until recently, marriage, divorce, and other matters were regulated by Islamic Family Law. In 2020, the Council of Family Affairs was established, operating under the auspices of the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources. However, activists for women’s rights and Arab feminist legal scholars claim that behind this decision lies a strong political unwillingness on the part of the regime to develop secular family laws and eradicate discrimination against women in legal form.

For instance, women can apply for a divorce but those who do apply are subject to complicated and costly procedures. Women can apply for a divorce only on limited grounds, such as mistreatment, and regardless of divorce proceedings the husband still holds the role of legal guardian during the petition procedure because of male guardianship laws. Moreover, divorced women cannot obtain full custody of their children. In 2014, Saudi Arabia issued a new law that allows women access to government services on behalf of their children, allowing women to take them to health centres, obtain government documents, and see school grades. Moreover, divorced women face multiple challenges and discrimination in Saudi Arabia due to dominant social ideas of family and the role of women.

Domestic violence and intimate partner violence is considered to be a public health issue in Saudi Arabia. Its prevalence varied between 20 percent and 39 percent between 2010 and 2020. In 2013, Saudi Arabia issued the Protection from Abuse Act, which was the first law to criminalize domestic violence. In the context of the legislative reforms procedure, Saudi Arabia has started to develop institutional complaint mechanisms for domestic violence survivors. Nevertheless, the strong legal and cultural remnants of the male guardianship system impede many women from accessing these new mechanisms and institutions. For example, in March 2021, Amnesty International stated that female domestic violence survivors in Saudi Arabia need a male guardian’s permission to leave their conjugal residence.

In 2019, Saudi Arabia banned marriage for minors defining minor as anyone under 18 years of age. However, child marriage is still a culturally prevalent practice in some regions of the country, and the new law has left loopholes that allow teenagers to marry if they are granted approval by a special court. Polygamy experienced a revival in the late 1970s, and Islamic Sharia law allows men to marry up to four wives. However, due to financial challenges and social developments like women’s educational status and entry into the labour market, younger generations practice less polygamy. This does not mean that polygamy is a disdained institution in the country and a small portion of expat men also practice polygamy when in Saudi Arabia. The institution reflects the dominant traditional patriarchal values in Saudi society and the social, class, and racial disparities evidenced by more destitute or migrant women being vulnerable to polygamous marriage.

In this context, it is evident that despite recent positive rulings, the social, political, and cultural impact of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system remains intact. Treating adult women as legal minors is the primary source of women’s disempowerment and the primary reason that many women attempt to flee Saudi Arabia. Rahaf Mohammed’s case has initiated a second phase of the anti-guardianship campaign after the persecutions of the feminist activists in 2018. Rahaf Mohammed, a Saudi woman, fled Saudi Arabia and was eventually granted asylum in Canada as a resettled refugee. Through her Twitter account, Rahaf campaigned on her own behalf, claiming that she had suffered physical and emotional abuse from her family, and that she was deprived of her right to get a proper education and obliged to enter into a forced marriage. She also claimed that her family threatened her life because she no longer follows Islam.

Other forms of discrimination that women face in Saudi Arabia include discrimination when receiving health care treatments and employment bias. In 2014, a medical code of ethics was introduced which stated that a woman’s consent should be sufficient to receive treatment. However, some healthcare institutions still require a woman’s guardian’s consent to provide her with adequate healthcare. Likewise, although the Saudi Vision 2030 introduced a series of protective legislation for female employees, such as protection against pregnancy-based discrimination, protection from illegal dismissal etc., and women are still considerably underpaid in comparison to their male peers and many employers still seek a guardian’s permission to hire a woman. Also, women are discriminated against in regard to inheritance where women are entitled to inherit only half of what their male relatives inherit.

In Saudi Arabia, abortion is permitted based on health and therapeutic grounds, foetal impairment, or in the case of rape. However, it is rather vague whether consent from the guardian or husband, in the case of expat women living in the country, is required for a married woman to have an abortion. Single and expat single women who wish to terminate pregnancies travel abroad or to their home countries to attain abortions. Contraception is available but access to institutions that offer education about family planning is minimal.

Migrant Women in Saudi Arabia: Overworked, Underpaid, and Mistreated

The Kafala or “Sponsorship” system exists or existed in variations in several Arab Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrein, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Under the Kafala system, migrant workers must have an employer sponsor to work and obtain a permit to lawfully stay in the country. Due to its inherently inequality, the Kafala system is the source of the severe abuse and mistreatment of millions of migrant workers residing in these countries. Under the Saudi Arabian sponsorship system, employers hold significant power over their employees and dictate the terms of their working conditions, exit permits, and immigration status. In the case of construction workers and domestic workers, risks of abuse and exploitation increase because these workers depend on their employers for food and housing.

According to Human Rights Watch, approximately 9,000,000 migrant workers reside and work in Saudi Arabia and about 1,100,000 are women. Migrant women in Saudi Arabia mostly work as cleaners, domestic workers, cooks, au-pairs, and housekeepers. The qualified among them are employed as health professionals, nurses, and private tutors.

International Human Right Organizations and human right activists in the region claim that the Kafala system is also a key component of human trafficking in KSA. Low-skilled workers from South Asia and Africa face increased risks of being illegally recruited into forced labour and domestic servitude. Female domestic workers under the Kafala system also face increased risks of being sexually harassed and abused because of their poor financial status and their gender. At the same time, the authorities make little effort to investigate reported abuses. Moreover, the Kafala system applies to expat women who are married to KSA citizens.

In November 2020, the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Labour and Human Resources announced its intention to reform parts of the Kafala system and allow foreign employees to switch employment without their sponsor’s approval (the so-called “Labour Reform Initiative”). However, the promoted reform is very mild and does not challenge the employer’s authority over the legal status of the employee, for example, an exit permit is still required for an employee to travel outside of the country. Moreover, the proposed reform excludes all workers who are not covered by the labour law, mostly domestic workers and farmers.

In this context, and given the lack of protective legislation, domestic workers are often exposed to many forms of physical, psychological, and gender-based violence. According to a Human Rights Watch Report on Saudi Arabia’s labour reforms, the abuses facing domestic workers who are not covered by the labour law include unpaid and delayed wages, long working hours without days off, passport confiscations, forced confinement, isolation, and physical and sexual abuse. Risk of all of these abuses increased during the COVID-19 health crisis.

In this context, serious mistreatment, abuses, and misuses on behalf of the Saudi authorities continue to come to light. For instance, according to Amnesty International, at least 41 women from Sri Lanka were arbitrarily detained for periods ranging from eight to 18 months while awaiting repatriation to their home country. Such incidents continue to occur even after the introduction of the Labour Reform Initiative. In many cases, female foreign workers who attempt to escape from abusive employers, switch from one job to another due to unpaid wages, or leave bad working conditions often face risks of being arbitrarily detained by the authorities.

Ιt is important to highlight that the Labour Reform Initiative does not abolish the Kafala sponsorship system. Under the new regulations, workers are still required to have employers who act as sponsors and therefore, employers still maintain a lot of power over their employees. For instance, employers will still be able to cancel or renew their employee’s visas and residency permits. However, the most critical weakness of this reform is the fact that it practically excludes hundreds of workers, such as drivers, farmers, shepherds, cleaners, and undocumented workers. Only skilled expatriate professionals working in the third sector of the economy will witness some form of change. Nonetheless, a significant percentage of foreign workers in KSA will continue to live and work under an exploitative and abusive labour regime.

Political Participation and Social Media Activism

Despite the efforts of the country’s major media outlets to present a new, reformed, and westernized version of the Saudi political system, Saudi Arabia remains an authoritarian monarchy that functions on the basis of a consensus between the royal family, the country’s elites, and the religious regime, leaving almost no space for political participation. No political parties and national elections are permitted in the country, although there is some limited space for local political involvement through municipal and regional elections, an institution introduced in 2005.

In 2015, Saudi women exercised the right to vote and to run as candidates in the municipal and local elections for the first time and 17 women were elected as municipal and regional counsellors. Women’s participation in the elections reflected a growing trend of participating more actively in the country’s public life, from which women were almost completely excluded until very recently.

Non-governmental organizations and other organizations of the fourth sector are also an emerging field of public activity in Saudi Arabia. However, many of these organizations are connected to older or newly established King’s and Prince’s Foundations. The animal rescue movement is also an emerging and genuine trend that mobilizes young people in the cities, who create animal shelters or feed and sterilize stray animals.

Nevertheless, other forms of political activity, human rights and women’s rights advocacy, for example, occur in Saudi Arabia through informal channels. Historically, women’s cultural clubs in Saudi Arabia have played a prominent role in women’s enfranchisement, building grassroots networks and promoting women’s rights. All these initiatives that emerge from civil society have contributed to creating a public sphere of active political participation in a country where political activities are banned and punishable.

Social media has also provided platforms for meaningful political advocacy and activism in Saudi Arabia. In particular, digital feminist activism has had a very significant impact on recent political developments. Τhe emblematic hashtag feminist campaigns, the anti-guardianship campaign #Anti_Male_Guardianship_System and the women’s driving campaign #Woment2Drive, have formed new examples of human rights and women’s rights advocacy and had an international impact, inspiring several political emancipation campaigns throughout the country despite censorship and the threat of persecution from the authorities. It is noteworthy that digital activists in the country, regardless of gender, are becoming bolder and often do not hesitate to reveal their identities while “hashtaging” political issues on social media networks.

“I Am My Own Guardian”

Nonetheless, digital feminist activism in Saudi Arabia and its influential political campaigns are the outcomes of strategic choices made by the women’s movement in the country and its prominent figures, rather than a spontaneous and digitally spread social media trend. The campaign against male guardianship went through several phases before it became a social media campaign. The stages included, among others, five-day workshops confidentially held in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam, a petition with 25 signatures submitted to three official bodies in 2012, a report published by Human Rights Watch in 2016, and finally the triggering of hashtag activism.

The initiative to organize political engagement workshops belongs to some of the feminist activists involved in the #Women2Drive Twitter campaign. The initial aim of the workshops, in which women of different social and economic status participated, was to discuss both the religious validity of the male guardianship system and plans for further action. In the aftermath of the workshops, a petition was submitted by the main organizers of the initiative to the three official bodies, Al-Shura Council, Council of Senior Scholars, and The Royal Diwan, that challenged the religious validity of the guardianship law and described it as a system that oppresses women and deprives them of their freedoms. Excluding two members of the Shura Council, the petition was ignored by the majority of the members of the governing bodies and this was a source of frustration and disappointment to the women.

In 2016, Human Rights Watch published a 192 page report discussing the terrifying impact of the male guardianship system on women’s lives in Saudi Arabia. The report was also posted on the HRW Twitter account with the hashtag #together_to_end_male_guardianship. This was a landmark moment for the development of the campaign as it triggered one of the most influential Twitter campaigns in Saudi Arabia and the MENA region. Saudi women posted photos and videos under the hashtag, demanding the abolition of the male guardianship system. Eventually, a new hashtag emerged #Saudi_women_want_to_abolish_the-guardianship_system, with a number at its end that represented each day of the campaign. The hashtag is still active on twitter and still counting the days.

Despite the detainment of feminist leaders, the censorship, and the threats from the state against hundreds of women who participated in the campaign, including the government tracking their IP addresses and banning their social media accounts, the movement had a significant political impact on the country and exerted public pressure on the government via its international appeal. As Nora Doaiji puts it in her paper Saudi Women’s Online Activism: One Year of the “I Am My Own Guardian” Campaign, “the ‘I Am My Own Guardian’ campaign was unprecedented in its ability to influence and mobilize varied and ever-growing groups of constituents, including a new generation of young women who were not previously politically active”.

What Does the Change Mean in Saudi Arabia?

While serious human rights violations continue to be perpetrated by an authoritarian regime that forbids elections and political advocacy, change in Saudi Arabia can only be seen as superficial. Nonetheless, as they show a reassessment of the boundaries of public life in the country, some of the developments of the past three years cannot be ignored.

Women have been placed in the centre of these developments because their lives are directly affected. The abolition of the notorious religious police known as the Mutawa, the lifting of the ban on women’s driving, the gradual abolition of gender segregation in public spaces, and the easing of the male guardianship law allowing women to travel without the consent of a male guardian, transformed fundamental aspects of the “solid” Saudi lifestyle that has been dominant since the religious resurgence of the 1980s.

These changes are received positively by both women and men and especially, by the highly digitally literate youth of the country that seeks more opportunities to create a more modern lifestyle and rejects traditional values. Conversely, in the context of this transitional period and with a backdrop of the emerging financial crisis, social, gender, and racial inequalities continue to grow and distrust towards state bureaucracy and the privileged elites of the country increases.

As Rana, a 30-year-old teacher, once told me while we were having brunch in a fancy all-day café-restaurant in Riyadh’s diplomatic quarter, “We have witnessed a lot of change the past three years in Saudi Arabia but I wouldn’t get too excited for the future. I have great faith in society’s ability to adapt and its willingness to change but not in those who are in power.”