Everyday life for women is severely restricted in Saudi Arabia, where women enjoy next to no political or social rights. What strikes me as particularly ironic, however, is that the voices are calling most loudly for change in Saudi Arabia are those of radical Islamists like Al Qaeda who want to make the condition of women even worse.

Although women make up the majority of the population in Saudi Arabia, their life is severely limited. Saudi women have little say in choosing their university studies or career, are not allowed to vote, nor travel without their husbands´ approval and receive medical attention in a hospital without consent from a husband or other male relative. In school, women are separated from their male classmates and in some cases, only receive instruction and access to their professors via closed-circuit television. Until recently, women had no identification documents and were “included” in their husbands´ passports. Driving is also forbidden to women, and for the majority of these second-class citizens, working for the State is not allowed. And for those who manage to get a job in the private sector, they are usually employed in a separate location from their male colleagues. Added to the list of female obligations is a dress code, which, for religious purposes, requires women to cover their hair with a black veil and wear the abaya (also made of black fabric) which conceals their bodies– neck to ankles– from the public eye.

Now on the positive side it looks like the situation for women may be progressing: in the 1960´s, Saudi schools were closed to women; today 55 percent of university students are female and the issue of women in the workplace has made it onto the public agenda. Most importantly, the Saudi public has proved it’s ready for change, given statistics that show 70 percent of the population rank the improvement of women’s rights as a priority. That said, the change is slow-moving and subtle, and Arab women are still at a disadvantage when it comes to being able to live a life they choose, unlike the majority of women in most of the world.

What I find most worrisome is that conditions for Saudi women may take many years to improve. The call for change has been met by strong opposition coming from conservative religious groups who aim to boost Saudi Arabia’s religious reputation. These groups would like to see the monarchy (which they consider corrupt, repressing and westernized) taken down and replaced by a government that would institutionalize the laws and social practices of a kind of Islam which is more repressive towards women. While the royal family is busy trying to hold onto power by cozying up to the United States and allying, at times, with extremist groups, the issues of Saudi women are getting pushed aside. Since the monarchs can’t do away with or even confront the religious forces, their attempt at democratic modernization is left paralyzed by a complex series of interests working against that objective. Saudi Arabian women must live under this conservative regimen that at the moment shows no sign of positive change, a system likely to continue knocking down even the smallest building blocks of modernization. The paradox is, according to Saudi feminist Samar Fatani, that most Saudi women are not necessarily seeking religious reform but rather desire certain basic political and social rights. The very religiosity which many women aim to uphold is the cause of their depressed political and social freedoms. And the religious groups to which these women belong are the same groups that oppose change, stunting the progress that could win Saudi women the right to a more reasonable, free and autonomous way of life.

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

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