The Saudi Women’s Rights Movement is still fighting to attain more freedom for women and girls. In 2016, the #IAmMyOwnGuardian hashtag started trending in Saudi Arabia. A petition to end the male guardianship system was also started – nearly 15,000 Saudi women signed the online petition and another 2500 sent telegrams to the Saudi government calling for its abolishment.(Mangla, 2016)The next biggest struggle remaining for Saudi women is to abolish the male guardianship system. The Human Rights Watch organization cites this system as the “the most significant impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country.” (Hincks, 2019)In order for Saudi Arabia to fully benefit from the untapped potential of its women, it must not just reform the guardianship system, it must end it. Early studies have proven that the nation as a whole is benefitting from reforms that have given Saudi women more autonomy and equality to their male counterparts. Future, long-term trend analysis will only further prove these early studies to be the truth. Saudi women have more than proven their worth as individuals and their resolve to gain equality.
The Saudi women’s rights movement has made clear strides over the last decade. How do they keep their movement going? How can the global community help foster their efforts? Saudi women achieved these improvements through the shrewd use of traditional media – newspapers, radios, and tv. Most recently though, the leaders in their movement have effectively used social media to fight for equality and to bring much needed attention to the plight of Saudi women. Despite all of the positive results they have achieved through their efforts, there is still a major that still faces them. They need to ensure that the improvements that have been made, become permanently enshrined in their constitution and their social and cultural landscape. These achievements cannot remain as simple policy changes that can be reversed instantly by the next king or crown prince.
“The male guardianship system is the most significant impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country.” (Human Rights Watch, 2016) Saudi women can vote, drive cars, travel without a guardian’s permission. But they still need permission to marry or divorce, access healthcare, enroll in school – including higher education. The Saudi women’s rights movement has to focus on changing the Basic Law. It needs to be amended to include protections for women. The Basic Law only mentions men and uses masculine pronouns, women and feminine pronouns are not found within the document.(Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 1992) Simply adding the word woman/women would be an important first step; although the true goal should be adding a few lines stating that these laws apply equally to all citizens regardless of their race, religion, sex, or gender.
Just three years after launching the 2011 Arab Spring Movements, Tunisia adopted its current constitution. It expressly states that “men and women have equal rights and duties and are equal before the law without any discrimination.” Tunisian politics is leading even the U.S. with 36% of parliamentarians and almost 50% of local politicians who are women. By comparison, after the 2018 U.S. mid-term elections which saw record numbers of women running and elected to political office, the U.S. still only has 21% of Congressional and 25% of state legislative seats held by women. (Yerkes & McKeown, 2018)The Tunisian people were able to achieve this level of success through constitutional changes and through quotas that were designed to boost the representation of women throughout their political system. The Tunisian population has become normalized to the idea of women as equals and the idea that women are just as capable as men.
Tunisia, as the model for the Saudi women’s rights movement, is a perfect example of how equality can be achieved in a majority Arab Muslim nation without turning away from their religion. Tunisia’s population is 98% native Arab and 99% of its citizens are Sunni Muslims. By comparison, Saudi Arabia has a more diverse population with 38% of the population being immigrants. It’s citizen population is (including immigrants) 90% Arab and 85% Sunni Muslims. (Central Intelligence Agency, 2020) Saudi women’s rights leaders should push for amending Saudi Arabia’s Basic Law in a similar manner to the Tunisian constitution. Using Tunisia as their example, Saudi women’s rights leaders can stress that equal rights can be extended to all citizens without dishonoring or abandoning their Islamic traditions and Arab heritage.
It is not just enough that the Saudi women’s rights movement push for policy changes on its own. The international community must help them achieve their goals by applying diplomatic pressure on the Saudi government. Saudi Arabia is a member of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Last year, the Saudi Arabian government was rebuked by 36 of their fellow council member nations, including all EU members, for their “aggressive crackdown on free expression” and their “treatment of Saudi women who have challenged the kingdom’s strict rules.”(Cumming-Bruce, 2019) It is not just enough to officially rebuke them. Saudi Arabia’s actions to curb freedom of expression and to oppress Saudi women violate the essence of what the UNHRC is trying to accomplish. The UNHRC should vote to remove them from their position if they continue to violate the human rights of their women.
Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Under the agreement, the Saudi government committed to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” (Kutesa, 2015)Failure to achieve its commitments under this program should constitute grounds for international economic and/or trade sanctions until the Saudi government complies with its obligations to institute changes that protect the rights of women and girls to freely participate in public life as equals to men and boys. Failure to meet this program would also be irrefutable proof of Saudi Arabia’s unfitness for continuing to participate as a member of the UNHRC.
Further, the U.S. has the ability to apply their own sanctions against the Saudi government until they choose to implement policies that extend equal rights to all Saudi citizens. The Saudi government has been locked into a proxy war with Iran through the Yemeni Civil War. The U.S. is the main supplier of the military hardware – F-15s – and munitions that the Saudi military has employed in Yemen.(Walsh & Schmitt, 2018) The U.S. should make any future arms sales contingent on the Saudi government implementing policies that support its obligations to fight against human rights violations and to provide equal rights to Saudi women and girls. Additionally, the U.S. Saudi foreign relations have revolved around their common security goals in the Persian Gulf/Arabian Peninsula. They have cooperated on policies to become an effective counterbalance to Iran in the region. The U.S. and Saudi governments have also cooperated on counter-terrorism efforts in the region. (Alyas, 2018)The U.S. should use the continuation of security relationships as additional leverage points to encourage Saudi Arabia to implement equal rights policies.
Saudi Arabia, of course, is a major exporter of oil to the European Union. It is also a major import nation because of the lack of natural resources on the Arabian Peninsula. Three of Saudi’s top ten import partners are EU member nations – Germany, France, and Italy. EU member nations have also been the source of military arms that have been used by Saudi in Yemen. (Global Edge, 2020)The European Union has been a long-time supporter of equal rights on the basis of sex and gender identification. The EU adopted its Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union in 2000. Article 23 states – Equality between men and women must be ensured in all areas, including employment, work and pay. (European Commission, 2000)Both the EU and Saudi governments have expressed the desire for trade and security agreements; instead of the bilateral agreements that exist between Saudi Arabia and individual EU member nations.(Oppenheim, 2019) The EU could stipulate adherence to UN standards for equal rights and fulfilling obligations under the Sustainable Development program are required to be met before the EU enters into any agreements with Saudi Arabia.
Realistically, the US and EU are unlikely to use their positions to help the Saudi women’s rights movement. The US and EU desire to continue trading with the Saudi government is too great to jeopardize over supporting a single issue that is essentially internal to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi women’s rights movement should continue to push for further internal reform. It should appeal directly to the UN if the Saudi regime continues to resist further efforts to roll back the male guardianship system. The UNHRC should stop ignoring Saudi Arabia’s demonstrably poor record on human and women’s rights and push for its immediate removal from the UNHRC. The UN should also impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on the Saudi government until it becomes compliant with its obligations as a UN member and signatory to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Saudi women should heed the words of Iranian women’s right activist Shaparak Shajarizadeh, “Don’t wait for anyone to hand you your rights.” (Mahtani, 2020)