A Comparative Analysis of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia and Japan
Ever since the birth of the women’s suffrage movement, and perhaps even before that, there has been a gradual shift in culture, politics, public relations, and government paradigms that have led us down the path of women’s empowerment. Although we are not fully there, western and developed states have made significant changes to their policies and overall attitudes to make for a more egalitarian society.
Naturally, the cultural paradigm of feminism would eventually take hold and trickle down to other sections of society. One of these sectors is Political Science – and more importantly International Relations (IR) – within which gender and feminist theory arose. Feminist theory is a branch of reflectivism[footnoteRef:1] that, put simply, examines International Relations and Politics through the female lens. Topics like masculinity and social justice are heavily scrutinized in an effort to reevaluate the discipline as a whole. [1: See Collins, Adam (2016).]
However, while feminist theory is indeed important and has brought about a shift in how we think of International Relations, there are some regions of the world where it has not necessarily caught on yet. In this article, I would like to analyze two countries that are arguably less feminist than our western counterparts: Japan and Saudi Arabia. Although there are a plethora of cultures that have not yet caught on to the feminine perspective, these two countries exhibit completely different reasons for their seemingly male-centered outlook and the effect it has on their society.
More specifically, I would like to examine the prevalence, or lack thereof, of domestic violence (DV). There are numerous ways that DV can occur, and I would like to recount these possibilities in hopes to shed light on several important factors. First, we have to establish the meaning of domestic violence. Is it only physical abuse or also psychological? Second, my aim is to reveal the possible cultural causes of such events. Do men have certain expectations of women that are unattainable? Is domestic violence an acceptable act within the culture and laws of these countries? Third, I argue that, thanks to different trajectories and policies, one country may end up being more gender equal in the long run.
Feminist Theory and Understanding Domestic Violence
It is important to understand Feminist theory to comprehend its profound effect on IR academia and to get the reader in the critical mindset needed to understand the nuances of complicated events like domestic violence. Feminist theory in International Relations is rather new, but nonetheless exciting. It forces scholars to reevaluate previously believed universal truths or biases in IR and Political Science. In most Political Science and International Relations classes, students are taught that these disciplines examine the who, what, when, and how of certain world events. What most people fail to realize, however, is that throughout history (the when), men (who) have sought political power (what) mostly by means of coercion and aggression. Therefore, it follows that these disciplines have for a large majority of history been analyzed under the scope of masculinity, while widely ignoring the woman’s point of view.[footnoteRef:2] [2: Caprioli p.254]
Countries like Japan and Saudi Arabia could benefit from an analysis of the current political discourse on gender. Saudi Arabia has obvious issues of women’s oppression stemming from cultural and religious beliefs. Meanwhile, Japan perhaps would be considered the more “woman friendly” of the two – making great political strides towards gender equality in recent years– but the image of woman in the workplace and traditional values of gender roles still seem to be a touchy subject with right-wingers and conservative politicians.
As for domestic violence, it can certainly be described as a type of sexual violence. Since we are focusing on domestic violence done to women in these countries, let us clearly explicate what domestic violence means. There is of course physical violence, sexual molestation, and rape. However, domestic violence can constitute psychological damage such as verbal abuse and threats. There are also religious considerations, such as women who are stoned to death for adultery in Saudi Arabia, which we will explore later.
Japanese Women, Shufu, and Institutional Discrimination
Two years ago, I lived, worked, and studied in Nagoya, Japan. During the two years that I lived there, I became acutely aware of the subtle ways women were not as highly regarded as men. Perhaps this is the case with many Asian cultures, but it seems to stand out most in Japanese culture. For example, a large percentage of Japanese women are what is referred to as shufu, which means housewife. The term housewife of course has negative connotations and for some is a source of shame in Western culture – often being associated with servitude to the man while he fulfills the traditional ‘breadwinner’ of the family role. However, this is not often the case in Japan. In fact, some studies claim that as many as 53% of women want to be housewives with the primary role of raising children and attending to housework.[footnoteRef:3] [3: Suzuki ]
Japanese culture exemplifies machism but in more subtle ways than its Middle Eastern counterpart. Women have the right to vote, drive, choose their spouse, and have jobs. These types of rights are absent from a plethora of developing countries. The lack of feminist presence lies is in the subtleties of political discourse and social stigmas. For example, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a slogan named “josei ga kagayaku shakai,” which translates to a “society in which women shine.” Abe’s goal is to have a society wherein women shine, in turn leading to prosperity of Japan as a whole.[footnoteRef:4] Although it’s a well-intentioned slogan, there seems to be an implication that women are not “shining” in the first place and there must be a reparation to current conventions. [4: Yamaguchi 70]
This implication is the overriding sentiment within Japan, albeit quite general and lacking empirical evidence. To back up these conjectures, I researched the World Economic Forum and found that Japan is currently 114th in gender equality as ranked by the Global Gender Gap Report of 2018.[footnoteRef:5] This ranking is by no means as low as Saudi Arabia’s, although quite into the lower half despite being the 3rd richest country in the world.[footnoteRef:6] Why is this? Again, we must turn to the cultural and historical aspect of Japan to understand this phenomenon. [5: The Global Gender Gap Report 2018] [6: IMF Database]
Japanese women were given equal rights in family life, political participation, and social activities for the first time when the Japanese Constitution was instituted in 1946.[footnoteRef:7] In spite of this, there has been a small number of women participating in political activities. There have been a multitude of measures implemented to promote more equal participation, such as public bodies (The Gender Equality Bureau) and legislative actions (Basic Law for Gender Equal Society), without much of the desired effect. Japanese women still hold only about 10% of senior and managing positions in business and earn on average only 51.3% of men’s earnings.[footnoteRef:8] [7: This paragraph is a brief summary of ‘Violations of Women’s Rights in Japan’ pp. 3-4] [8: Violations of Women’s Rights in Japan 5]
So why the lack of progress? The conservative politicians and their staunch refusal to accept gender equality are a significant roadblock. “Gender free” (jend? fur?), a term coined in 1995, was originally used by scholars to vaguely describe a certain freedom from compulsory gender roles[footnoteRef:9]. However, right wing conservatives are using it as a weapon to remove any gender related material. In one instance, 150 books on sexuality and feminism were removed from a public center due to a complaint by a council member.[footnoteRef:10] [9: Yamaguchi 70] [10: Violations of Women’s Rights in Japan 5]
There are an endless number of factors that could also explain the Japanese attitude toward feminism and women’s rights. Rapidly falling fertility rates and the view that women have a responsibility to reproduce and take care of their offspring is certainly a factor for the stagnation on women’s issues. One must also consider Asian culture’s proclivity to prefer holism and humility rather than individualism, which could explain why women do not report discrimination or abuse in their households.
Domestic Violence in Japan
Surprisingly, there has not been much research done about domestic violence in Japan unlike in the United States. This could be a cultural consequence, as women would most likely believe that speaking up would be looked down upon within their community. In fact, most women in Japan are aware that domestic violence is a real issue[footnoteRef:11]. So why the lack of information? It could be a cultural consequence, as women would most likely believe that speaking up is a deplorable action that brings shame to their family. There are other cultural factors that we can explore further. [11: Fujieda 60]
One probable explanation for lack of information on the subject can be understood through the relationship between men and women. As Mioko Fujieda explains, Japanese men are quite tame in comparison to their western counterparts, and one of the reasons for that is the traditional dietary differences (rice for Japan, significant meat eating in the West). Further, the concept of family being the basic unit for their society is widely accepted, and if any violence were to occur in the household, it would be of major import to keep it within the family. Another reason Fujieda posits is that although women are discriminated against in the workplace and in the outside world, they are actually held in a high regard within their own homes as the money managers and primary care taker of children. This would deter Japanese men from committing acts of violence against their spouses.[footnoteRef:12] [12: This paragraph summarizes some points from Fujieda’s paper Review of Japanese Culture and Society]
In spite of the limited amount of reported cases and subsequent research of domestic violence within Japan, we can still examine instances of violence against women in their history. In particular, Korean women were used as sex slaves by the Japanese army during the Asian and Pacific War. At the time, Korea was a colony of Japan and about 200,000 Korean and other Asian women were used as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers in military brothels.[footnoteRef:13] Labeled as “comfort women,” these women serving in brothels eventually broke their silence about the terrible experiences they faced. They were “confined to filthy shanties… forced to have intercourse with Japanese soldiers from 10 to 30 times a day,” and “were regularly subjected to torture, beating, burning, and sometimes stabbing.”[footnoteRef:14] [13: Pyong Gap 938] [14: Pyong Gap 941]
The most important take away from this may be interpreted as two-fold. On one side, we can see that Japanese men are indeed capable of violence – just as much as their Western counterparts or Saudi Arabian men. This goes against the previous assertion by Fujieda that men are perhaps more docile due to cultural reasons. On the other hand, this type of violence is very prevalent in war times and is demonstrated behavior among all types of cultures. One can certainly make the inference, however, that there is an underreporting of domestic violence within the Japanese household.
Saudi Arabian Women’s Rights and Male Guardianship
Japan seems to have an almost quiet discomfort with the current discourse on the empowerment of women, with a significant percentage of women preferring to keep biological deterministic attitudes toward genders. However, it does not come close in comparison to Saudi Arabian attitudes. Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East as a whole, is a country where the suffering, severe discrimination, and lack of overall freedom of women is well documented. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum, Saudi Arabia is ranked 9th lowest out of nearly 200 countries that qualified. Even more astounding is the fact that five out of the remaining lowest eight were middle eastern countries.[footnoteRef:15] [15: The Global Gender Gap Report 2018]
When we look at these countries, the common denominator is religion. Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country, and the religion of Islam is well known and interwoven with their culture; you cannot have one without the other. In fact, according to a survey done in four countries, about 99 percent of interviewed Saudi Arabians were Muslim, as opposed to 94 percent in Egypt, 95 percent in Jordan, and 97 percent in Iran.[footnoteRef:16] Instead of describing the exact details of the Quran that lead men to behave the way they do towards women, I would like to look at the impact that religion has on the society itself and how these attitudes affect women. [16: Moaddel 82]
In the aforementioned surveys, attitudes toward women was also a question that was asked. To no surprise, there was a significant gender gap and evidence of biased attitudes towards women, which is in stark contrast to egalitarian countries in the West.[footnoteRef:17] When asked in times of job scarcity whether men should have the right to a job over women, about 93 percent of the public agreed to this statement. These figures exemplify the overall condition of women’s lack of empowerment in Saudi Arabia. Even more striking were the topics of polygamy and obedience, as 72 percent of Saudis had no problem with polygamy, some citing the acceptance of Saudi men to have more than one wife. Last, 81 percent of Saudis believe that a woman should always be obedient to her husband. [17: This section briefly summarizes and comments on the figures in Moaddel’s section labeled Attitudes Toward Women]
However, not all of the surveys painted a grim picture on the current state of women in Saudi Arabia. When asked about the institution of marriage, Saudi’s said it was an outdated concept and about 50 percent believe that marriage should not be arranged by parents but instead about love. This is a significant development in a country that has traditionally been male dominant and restrictive towards women.[footnoteRef:18] [18: Moaddel 91]
Another significant development is the recent approval for women to drive in Saudi Arabia. With crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plans to further modernize his kingdom, primarily in an effort to get away from only relying on oil for their economy, the decree to allow women to drive was announced in September of 2017.[footnoteRef:19] However, this has not been treated as a reason to rejoice for many. According to the Nabih Bulos from the Los Angeles Times, a young woman’s car was burned down by those opposed to the driving ban being lifted. Like this, there are many other instances of conservative men’s opposition toward the lift on that ban that has been in effect since 1957. [footnoteRef:20] [19: “Saudi Women Get First Driving Licences”] [20: Bulos]
As evidenced by the opposition to this new-found progress, there are still centuries-old prejudices against women that have yet to be undone. Everyday actions, such as wearing make-up or clothes that are too revealing, talking to men with whom they are not married, and even going for a swim publicly are severely limited activities. Furthermore, while adulterous behavior is not as looked down upon for men, if a woman were to have non-marital sex, she would be stoned to death.[footnoteRef:21] In fact, according to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia is third in most executions committed in 2017, only behind China and Iran.[footnoteRef:22] [21: Afary] [22: Amnesty International]
Domestic violence is a consequence of all these aforementioned limitations for women. Male guardianship, which is characterized as a state mandated system where Saudi women must be accompanied by a male guardian who makes all of their decisions for them, is the primary reason for these severe restrictions.[footnoteRef:23] This prevents women from speaking out about domestic abuse as they are incapable of speaking against their guardians. Regardless, there have been many cited instances of abuse in Saudi Arabian marriages, with little to no consequences for most of the history of Saudi Arabia. As a matter of fact, domestic violence was not even illegal until 2013.[footnoteRef:24] [23: Perpetual Minors] [24: BBC News ]
Conclusion and Comparison
Saudi Arabian women’s current rights are drastically different to how the Japanese live their daily lives. Japanese women are free to have sex outside of wed-lock, drive, swim freely, and have conversations with whomever they want without cultural consequences. There is simply no comparison between what each of these countries’ women are free to do. What’s important here is to notice the trends between the two countries. It seems that as a consequence of Mohammad bin Salman’s recent desire to make his country more accessible to tourism, he is opening the flood gates to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. As women get a taste of more freedom of choice and autonomy, they will soon start demanding that Mohammad bin Salman further makes progressive changes. Another catalyst may prove to be the increased tourism bin Salman is aiming for, as women from different countries and their customs will undoubtedly influence the local women.
Japan, however, is making slower progress toward gender equality. While Saudi Arabian women seem to be repressed by law, there are those who are trying to make a change and activists calling for liberation of women’s rights. In contrast, less Japanese women are activists and are more accepting of their roles in society. They have exponentially more freedom and human rights than do Saudi women but are experiencing stagnation in their own trends toward gender equality.
Additionally, domestic violence under-reporting is likely a problem in both countries, but both have their own reasons for it. Japanese society is holistic; where the needs and image of the family are above everything. In spite of this reluctance to speak up, women also play a significant role in the household and are well respected in the family nucleus, so the instances of domestic abuse are likely lower than in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Saudi women must experience male guardianship throughout their lives and are restricted in most major decisions that involve themselves. Only recently have anti-domestic violence laws passed and freedoms such as driving been granted. Despite this, domestic violence is likely to be underreported due to the subservience to men these women must display in order to be socially accepted. Nevertheless, both countries are on different trajectories. Based on this, it is not outside the realm of possibility that it will be Saudi Arabia, instead of Japan, who is exhibits more gender equality in the long run.
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