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Saudi Feminism: From Freedom to Work to Freedom from Violence

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Saudi Vision 2030 represents another leap forward for Saudi women’s rights. It is the newest extension of the Saudization program. The program seeks to expand the percentage of Saudi nationals in the workforce including an increase from 22 to 30 percent of Saudi women in the workforce. (Khan, 2018)In August 2019, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman officially announced the extension of rights to Saudi women. This extension included: “the right to travel without a male relative’s permission, to receive equal treatment in the workplace and to obtain family documents from the government.” (Hubbard & Yee, 2019) Women will no longer need a guardians’ permission to accept employment under the new extension of rights which will greatly improve the well-being of Saudi women who were often forced to remain in abusive situations because of economic necessity.

The women’s rights movement has made great strides recently in Saudi Arabia and it will be interesting to continue to observe future developments. But there are still significant barriers facing Saudi women before they can truly be equal members of Saudi society. Certainly, women will face push back from more traditional male members of Saudi society and even from their female elders who still adhere to the more traditional Islamic view that honors women solely as wives and mothers. “It is a great breakthrough. It was bound to happen, but these changes are always done at a time when the people are more apt to accept the changes, otherwise they will fail.” – Hoda al-Helaissi, a member of the kingdom’s advisory Shura Council. (Hubbard & Yee, 2019)

There can be little doubt that Saudi Arabia’s Women’s Rights Movement has met some pretty significant milestones in the last decade in education, political activities, access to the workplace, driving, and lessening of male guardianship rules. Yet many other nations point to Saudi Arabia as a leader in human rights violations and particularly the oppression of women’s rights. Is it fair to continue to point to Saudi Arabia as a bad example? Is it truly that far behind other nations on women’s rights? There have been women heads of states for decades now, history records the following women who have been state leaders: Indira Gandhi – India, Golda Meir – Israel, Margaret Thatcher – United Kingdom, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir – Iceland, Benazir Bhutto – Pakistan, Mary Robinson – Ireland, Kim Campbell – Canada. (Wills, Smith, & Hicks, 2016)There are currently 13 nations that are led by a female politician: Iceland, Germany, New Zealand, Marshall Islands, Namibia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Estonia, Croatia, Norway, Ethiopia, Taiwan, and Lithuania. (Gallagher, 2019)

Saudi Arabia’s women’s rights movement still has a way to go to achieve the level of equality that is enjoyed by American and other westernized women; but it has momentum behind it, and it has achieved major milestones in recent years. It has been decades since the U.S. women’s rights movement has attained any significant new achievements. Saudi Arabia’s next ruler supports expansion of women’s rights and hopefully this support continues into the future.

The Saudi women’s rights movement has generated plenty of headlines over the last few years as they have gained more rights to access the work force, to vote, to drive, to more educational opportunities, and the lessening of male guardianship over women. But what has been the overall effect of these changes been to Saudi society? While these changes have been exciting to watch and show that even the most conservative of societies can evolve to embrace equality, their constitution – the Basic Law – has not been permanently amended to codify these changes as permanent. It would only take an accident, assassination, or Coup d’état to bring in a hardline regime that could erase all of the progress that has currently been made. Even the most hardline regime would face a difficult task if it were unequivocally proven that these changes have improved the economic, political, and social spheres of Saudi Arabia.

Multiple studies have proven that educating women and allowing a higher percentage of women into the workplace have resulted in improvements to a nation’s economic output and overall health of women. In regions, that have increased the equality of women in the workforce and education system, those nations have experienced corresponding decreases in maternal death rates and sharp declines in adolescent pregnancy rates.(International Monetary Fund, 2018) Additionally, nations that have pursued increased gender equality in their societies have experienced increases to their economic growth.

In September 2015, 193 UN member nations, including Saudi Arabia, signed on to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). As described by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon the SDG is “a roadmap to ending global poverty, building a life of dignity for all and leaving no one behind. It is also a clarion call to work in partnership and intensify efforts to share prosperity, empower people’s livelihoods, ensure peace and heal our planet for the benefit of this and future generation” and includes 17 specific goals to meeting sustainable development. The fifth goal is “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”(Kutesa, 2015) Some of the most significant gains in the Saudi women’s right movement have in fact been achieved since the implementation of SDG: suffrage (2015), head of Saudi stock exchange (2017), access to sports stadiums (2018), driving ban eliminated (2018), and women must be notified of a divorce petition (2019). (Deutsche Welle, 2019)

The reforms that have been implemented by the Saudis have been so recent that there is not a lot of long-term analysis of the effects from the progress in women’s rights. The early studies though are showing promising results up to this point. The brightest area for Saudi women is in education. The five-year plan launched in 2014 earmarked $21.33 billion for the education sector and established the King Abdullah Sponsorship Programme (KASP) for Saudi students to attend higher education programs overseas. Currently, Saudi women represent 1/3 of students in the program. Their percentages rise the higher the degree is – 41.91% of Saudi PhD students are women. (Alsubaie & Jones, 2017)While Saudi Arabia still ranks 105th globally for equality of education, it has also been ranked fifth for making progress towards equality. It is not just women attending higher education that has increased. There has also been an exponential increase in the number of Saudi women who are lecturers at the university level. In academic year 2003/2004, there were approximately 4700 Saudi women lecturers. (Alsubaie & Jones, 2017) In five short years, that number had increased to 19,600. Saudi male students are seeing Saudi women in leadership positions in their education and that can only lead to future opportunities for women as these men go out into the workplace and bring their positive experiences with them.

As the education of women has steadily increased, Saudi women are becoming more visible in the workplace. In just three years (2009-2012), the number of Saudi women in the workforce has increased from 48,000 to over 200,000. Saudi women’s participation in the workforce is not just improving the overall economic outlook for the KSA, women’s participation is having a direct effect on the macroeconomics of their homes and their local communities. Women have different spending patterns than their male counterparts. Saudi women tend to spend their earnings “to promote their children’s health and education.” (Saqib, Aggarwal , & Rashid, 2016)Socially, allowing women to work automatically grants them greater freedom – financial independence from families and husbands, something they lacked in the past. “Divorced or widowed women increasingly seek out employment to support themselves, instead of relying on their extended families” or the government welfare system.(Kelly, 2009).

Finally, Saudi Arabia adopted the Protection from Abuse Act in 2013; a clear sign that the women’s rights movement had finally highlighted the domestic violence problem that was easily hidden behind the veils and abayahs worn whenever women were out in public. The most significant fact that is revealed by passing this important piece of legislature is a simple one – Saudi women and girls are worthy of protection. They are important members of their society and Saudi men will not be allowed to continue to abuse them. Of course, even with this important law in place, domestic abuse continues. But combining the legal repercussions of this law with the importance of their right to drive and go out in public, Saudi women have to ability to get to police stations to report abuse and to get to women’s shelters to seek help and find safety from their abusers.(Alhabdan, 2015)Economic independence has been an effective defense against domestic violence. Saudi women who work outside the home and have an independent income stream are less likely to remain in an abusive relationship. One of the most commonly sighted reasons that keep Saudi Arabian women in an abusive relationship is the fear of poverty. (Alhabdan, 2015) So here is to hoping the still-limited progress in terms of women’s freedom from abuse will continue strongly within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Paula Mallott is nearly finished with her graduate degree in International Security and Intelligence Studies at Bellevue University and works as a Senior RC-135 Training Specialist with Leidos, Inc. She is a retired Air Force Linguist specializing in Russian and Arabic (Syrian, Iraqi, and Libyan dialects).

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After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians

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The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking

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IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?


The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya

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With just over 100 days until landmark elections in Libya, political leaders must join forces to ensure the vote is free, fair and inclusive, the UN envoy for the country told the Security Council on Friday. 

Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) briefed ambassadors on developments ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on 24 December. 

They were agreed under a political roadmap stemming from the historic October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s rival authorities, and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) earlier this year. 

At the crossroads 

“Libya is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible,” said Mr. Kubiš.  “With the elections there is an opportunity for Libya to move gradually and convincingly into a more stable, representative and civilian track.” 

He reported that the House of Representatives has adopted a law on the presidential election, while legislation for the parliamentary election is being finalized and could be considered and approved within the coming weeks.  

Although the High National Election Commission (HNEC) has received the presidential election law, another body, the High State Council, complained that it had been adopted without consultation. 

Foreign fighter threat 

The HNEC chairman has said it will be ready to start implementation once the laws are received, and will do everything possible to meet the 24 December deadline. 

“Thus, it is for the High National Election Commission to establish a clear electoral calendar to lead the country to the elections, with support of the international community, for the efforts of the Government of National Unity, all the respective authorities and institutions to deliver as free and fair, inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and constraints,” said Mr. Kubiš.  

“The international community could help create more conducive conditions for this by facilitating the start of a gradual withdrawal of foreign elements from Libya without delay.” 

Young voters eager 

The UN envoy also called for countries and regional organizations to provide electoral observers to help ensure the integrity and credibility of the process, as well as acceptance of the results. 

He also welcomed progress so far, including in updating the voter registry and the launch of a register for eligible voters outside the country. 

So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 per cent of whom are women.  Additionally, more than half a million new voters will also be casting their ballots. 

“Most of the newly registered are under 30, a clear testament to the young generation’s eagerness to take part in determining the fate of their country through a democratic process. The Libyan authorities and leaders must not let them down,” said Mr. Kubiš. 

He stressed that the international community also has a responsibility to support the positive developments in Libya, and to stand firm against attempts at derailment.  

“Not holding the elections could gravely deteriorate the situation in the country, could lead to division and conflict,” he warned.  “I urge the Libyan actors to join forces and ensure inclusive, free, fair parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be seen as the essential step in further stabilizing and uniting Libya.”

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