Women’s Rights in Islam: Navigating Cultural Transformations and Challenges
This essay examines the evolving landscape of women’s rights in Islam, focusing on the intersection of religious teachings, cultural practices, and modern challenges. It aims to dissect the diverse experiences of Muslim women across the world, considering factors like legal rights, educational opportunities, and societal expectations. The piece will delve into the historical context of women’s roles in Islamic societies and the contemporary movements advocating for gender equality within the Islamic framework. Also at PapersOwl you can find more free essay examples related to Women Rights.
How it works
After lifting a ban on women driving, allowing sports in girls’ schools, and allowing women to attend soccer games and join the military, Saudi activists are hopeful it will not be a one-shot deal as conservatives fight back. They say this is just the beginning in terms of gaining their rights, which they say are based on a correct interpretation of Islamic laws and a move away from conservative traditions. These cultural restrictions not only impact where and how women interact publically but also affect their rights as individuals.
Much of their lives, social, cultural, and economic, are controlled by traditions and social expectations that render them dependent on a male relative.
Saudi Arabia is the world’s most gender-segregated nation. However, with societal and cultural changes underway, generations of women are trying to grapple with how to push for change and maintain their Saudi identity. Those seeking change are not only fighting a conservative patriarchal society but other women who see more independence and freedom as a challenge to the way they perceive themselves, an antithesis to their identity, culture, and their brand of religion.
Women’s rights and role in society emanate from a deeply conservative culture and interpretations of Islamic law, called Sharia law. In Saudi culture, unlike most other Islamic countries, Sharia is interpreted according to a strict form known as Wahhabism. With the laws mostly unwritten, judges have significant power to deviate from Quranic text and interpret what is moral and amoral, what is permitted and what is not. The “religious police” enforce the country’s strict moral code.
The various interpretations have led to controversy, so it’s no surprise that what is happening today is causing rifts and tensions. For example, Sheikh Ahmad Qassim Al-Ghamdi, chief of the Mecca region’s religious police, said prohibiting gender mixing has no basis in Sharia. Countering, Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak, another prominent cleric, issued a religious opinion that proponents of gender mixing should be killed.
The first movie, written and directed by a Saudi woman, Wadjda, shows some of the restrictions women face, including the prohibition on women driving or mixing with men, the taboos over laughing or talking loudly in public, or riding bicycles as they might affect virginity. Ironically, soon after Wadjda’s mother bought her the green bike, it was announced in 2012 that women could ride bikes. They still had to wear their abayas, be accompanied by a male guardian, and ride in designated areas only. A big or small change depending on your perspective, mobility facilitates women’s independence. More recently, besides lifting the driving bank, King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who is seen as a de facto leader, eased some restrictions on women, including efforts to increase their involvement in the commercial sector.
These moves have been simultaneously celebrated by women who have been campaigning for decades and criticized by others, who saw giving women the keys as a dangerous move certain to impact mortality. Ironically, ahead of lifting the ban on female drivers, more than a dozen activists who had campaigned for these changes were arrested. Activists think that the arrests are a message not to push demands faster than the government’s own agenda as well as an attempt to appease conservative elements, reflecting the deep struggle between the introduction of new norms and the old authoritarianism.
“Saudis don’t want to lose their identity, but we want to be part of the global culture. We want to merge our culture with global identity,” said the crown prince in an interview with the Atlantic. The young autocrats’ comment echoes Amin Maalouf, who believes that globalization is putting new pressures on people, feeling threatened by change, to cling more tightly to their identity. They are torn between choosing “excessive assertion of their identity and the loss of their identity altogether, between fundamentalism and disintegration” He argues that “in the age of globalization and in the ever-accelerating intermingling of elements, a new identity is needed urgently.” This is where Saudi has to find a delicate balance.
With the driving ban lifted, Saudi women’s rights activists are looking to dismantle the country’s guardianship system, which Human Rights Watch has recently called “the most significant impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country.” Saudi Arabia has a system in place under which Saudi women must have a legal male guardian —a father, brother, or husband — who make decisions on their behalf, giving men ultimate authority over them. For example, women in Saudi Arabia can’t open a bank account, get a passport, travel outside the country, get married, or get out of jail without their guardian’s consent. In May 2017, activists made positive strides when King Salman issued an order saying that women did not need such permission to enter university, take a job, and access government and health services.
While the decree is significant, decades-old traditions will be difficult to remold overnight. Women’s rights groups in the country are now lobbying for the end of guardianship altogether, often using the social media hashtag “#IAmMyOwnGuardian.” Others, however, insist this guardianship system is based on love and care of women and say dismantling it would be destructive to their culture. This view of women that are dependent and need to be taken care of is actually the opposite of how women were depicted during the Prophet Mohammed’s time. His first wife was a businesswoman, whom he worked for, another was a scholar and politician, and one died leading a battle.
The system has, in fact, limited women from getting higher education, getting education abroad, working, and, in some extreme cases, even leaving their homes. They can’t file a police report about abuse against their husband because he is required to accompany her to the station. On my last trip to Riyadh, I met a woman who was eligible to get a scholarship to study abroad, and her father refused because she would be living alone in Canada, a lifestyle he considered immoral. She had no recourse and received what she described as a subpar education by male professors taught via video conferencing. Women also regularly face difficulty conducting financial transactions and filing legal claims without a male relative’s consent or presence.
Women have 91 percent literacy, and over half attend college in the Kingdom. However, they only represent 16-20 percent of the labor force, one of the lowest proportions in the world. In its education system, learning does not support individualism and free expression. The education system, built on dogma and memorization, does not celebrate or even tolerate differences or individuality, a quality prized in the liberal education tradition. Wadjda is criticized for her individuality, her resourcefulness, and her desire for a bike. The headmaster of the school, a woman, tries to crush this spirit and unique identity, pushing her to conform to the accepted behavior of a girl.
The young girl seems to often get it wrong, wearing the wrong shoes, her headscarf slipping off her head, playing with Abdullah, and her ultimate quest for a bicycle. On refuting individuality, Maalouf mentions, “the notion that reduces identity to a single affiliation – encourages people to adopt an attitude that is partial, sectarian, intolerant…. Their view of the world is biased and distorted.” Dictating how a “moral” person should act can be more harmful than not because it leads to rebellion.
After speaking to friends this week about their school experience in Riyadh, they recall numerous religious courses where teachers emphasize morality, gender segregation, and women’s role in society as good Muslims, obedient daughters, and wives. “We are made to believe that our ultimate goal is to get married and have children, which are very important, but we are not encouraged to have other ambitions like a career like the boys, “one friend said. “Having said that, some of my Saudi friends are now doctors and scientists, and some are married and have children.”
She stressed that getting educated and gaining financial independence in the workplace empowers women in their households. “I am totally reliant on my father for every penny,” the 27-year-old said. “Every time I wanted to get a job, it was decided it was not the right atmosphere with men and women mixing.” The contradiction is that this same woman travels with her family to Europe and sits side by side with men at restaurants, not strictly observing the dress code she dons in Riyadh.
Segregation: Separate but not equal
Women are required to restrict their interaction with men they are not related to. Government buildings, banks, and universities actually have separate entrances for women and men. Public transportation, parks, and restaurants are also segregated. Even in mixed venues like malls or supermarkets, men and women have to be weary about mixing or speaking with each other. Unlawful mixing could lead to criminal charges being brought against both parties, but women typically face harsher punishment and fear a ruined reputation. We saw a similar situation in Wadjda where one of the school girls who used Wadjda’s help to speak to “her cousin” became the talk of the town and was punished by the religious police for being seen with a male who is not related to her.
This unnatural segregation limits where women can work and how they perform commercial transactions and enter into relationships. Women, no doubt, will be impacted positively by these newly introduced changes, including the right to drive, more career opportunities for them even in “mixed” work environments, like the military, and the looser grip of the male guardian on women in accessing some government services. While these are encouraging steps, more difficult issues of women’s rights to their own life decisions, including marriage, education, work, and travel, remain on the table.
Why I chose a topic?
I have been fascinated by Saudi Arabia ever since I visited my grandparents in Riyadh a few years ago and annually ever since. Coming from a somewhat modernized Middle Eastern country like Jordan, where driving, mixed schools, and intermingling of the sexes in workplaces and in society, in general, is commonplace, I went to Riyadh with my own prejudices and stereotype of Saudi women. I saw women as constricted and controlled by their abayas, their inability to drive, and, most importantly, their inability to make important decisions without the consent of a male guardian. I was shocked that a woman could not go to school or even get surgery without her father, brother, or husband’s permission. This was difficult for me to imagine coming from a household where equality is preached. Even before the new changes introduced in 2017, every time I went, another layer of my prejudices about Saudi women was peeled away.
I was starting to see their diversity, albeit with the contradictions. I met female doctors at my grandfather’s clinic, business owners of avante-garde boutiques and art galleries, and bankers. On my last trip, I met a Saudi activist campaigning for change, encouraging women to run for municipal council. But I also met Saudi women, young and old, who saw these calls to modernize as Western-inspired changes designed to dilute their identity, break down their cultural fabric, and destroy their brand of Islam. She confirmed what Maalouf mentioned, which is that throughout history, especially in the Arab world, modernity is rejected; it isn’t always seen as progress and a welcome development. What shocked me was how varied the opinions were about the direction and speed of change.
I noticed that some Saudi female reformers reject foreign ideas of equality and even criticism. This was echoed reading Saudi Journalist Maha Akeel, a well-known writer and critic of restrictions on women. She believes that Westerner critics do not understand Saudi. ‘Look, we are not asking for … women’s rights according to Western values or lifestyles … We want things according to what Islam says. Look at our history, our role models.’ Western pressure for broadened rights is counterproductive, particularly pressure from the United States, given the intense anti-American sentiment in Saudi Arabia after September 11.” Fifteen of the 19 hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia.
Going forward, it would be interesting to see how far Saudi Arabia’s rulers will and can go to give Saudi women their rights. There is fierce resistance to such change, even among women, something that is hard for outsiders like me to understand. An important question is can women realize these rights in the absence of a political role in an autocratic society?
I have learned about the many firsts researching this paper. I learned that the same year Wdjda got her bike, women were appointed to the Shura council, like a parliament. Shortly after, they got the right to vote in municipal elections. Also, last year, the Kingdom lifted a ban on women working at supermarket checkouts, in lingerie stores, and on cosmetics counters. I learned that in 2017 Sarah Al-Suhaimi became the first woman to chair Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange.
I also learned the decision to lift the driving ban came with a long history. I was not aware that the original anti-ban protest was in 1990 in Riyadh, led by 47 women, and this demand has been ongoing since then with great sacrifice by these women, including jail, harassment, loss of livelihoods, and public shaming. These women understood that some Saudi women would not be able to get to university or get to work if their male guardians did not take them. Another contradiction is that many women have drivers not related to them, and that is somehow permitted.
Most importantly, I learned from reading editorials, research, and speaking to Saudi women here and in Saudi how fractured Saudi society is about greater rights for women. Many want to cling to their way of life, insisting that this is the way it should be and part of their identity, while others want total equality, arguing that a correct interpretation of Islam gives them their rights and equality.
Saudi women have recently been given basic rights most of the world takes for granted. No doubt, if these rights continue to develop, the Kingdom could harness the power of half the population, which is mostly underutilized. This attitude and constraint will not disappear with a royal decree, but it is a start. The issue of identity is not far from the surface when opponents and advocates of women’s rights argue their points of view.
The Saudi journalist and others remind people cultural change will be difficult and slow. “A society that has for so long been fed a constant stream of ultra-conservative interpretations of Islamic text is being awakened to the real Islam of moderation and tolerance. It needs a readjustment period to realign itself, accept the transformations, and reform itself. Our textbooks need an overhaul, our judicial and court system needs to be updated, and our perception of the role and place of women needs modification.”