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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Henrik on May 4, 2007  · 

It is ironic that Saudi Arabia still is seen as one of the most “west-friendly” nations in the region.

You do well to raise awareness of these injustices, Martin. Also, the people of Saudi Arabia are wise to stop discriminating and thus losing the possibilities and competence of 50% of their own citizen.

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Gilles Amsallem on May 5, 2007  · 

La plupart des intellectuels, en tout cas de ceux qu’on invite dans les medias, peuvent être classés dans l’une des deux mouvances de pensée suivantes : l’alter-mondialisme “déviant” (anti-américain, anti-sionniste et très indulgent quant à l’islamisme) ou le néo-conservatisme (bushiste, et très indulgent sur les dérapages des armées américaines ou israéliennes). Gauchistes contre anciens gauchistes (Irving Kristol, un des premiers néo-con -ce n’est pas une insulte de ma part, c’est un diminutif courant aux États-Unis !- disait avec humour qu'”un néoconservateur est un homme de gauche qui a été agressé par la réalité”). Terrorrisme intellectuel contre terrorrisme intellectuel : pour les premiers, quiconque soutient Israël est un imperialiste ou sionniste extrêmiste, quiconque critique l’islamisme est un affreux raciste, pour les seconds, quiconque critique Bush ou Sharon est un affreux antisémite : chaque camp accuse à juste titre l’autre de pratiquer cette Terreur, mais la pratique lui-même. Manichéens contre manichéens : les premiers accusent des pires maux tout ce qui est occidental, les seconds tout ce qui est oriental. 

Nous assistons à la défaite de la pensée démocratique en Europe , il faut dénoncer la naïveté de certains intellectuels “champions de la modernité ou apôtres de la différence”. Il est important de bien comprendre la nuance :
il faut s’attaquer aux courants de pensée chez nous qui ferment le débat , il faut se révolter contre bien-pensance qui impose de considérer toutes les réflexions sur le même plan : tout est aujourd’hui considéré comme pensée (valable), même les pires idées : c’est la defaite de NOTRE pensée .
Quelque soit ses opinions , on a bien vu en France au cours de la campagne electorale l’attitude de la gauche vis à vis de la droite libérale. L’intolérance a changé de camps . Quand la “modernité “ insulte ceux qui ne pensent pas comme elle, je retrouve le danger de l’intolérence des mouvements conservateurs et des facistes contre lesquels j’ai lutté et je continuerai de lutter. 

Enfin le sort des femmes dans le monde Arabo musulman ne doit pas étre isolé du reste . L’antisémitisme, le conflit israélo-palestinien, l’anti americanisme … C’est bien l’occident la democratie , les femmes qui sont détestés . Il faut etre vigilant et dénoncer notamment les dérapages du courant altermondialiste ecologique … . Les juifs les plus progressistes et pacifistes qui faisaient partie de ces mouvements les ont quitté, Pourquoi ? Les leaders altermondialistes sont pro-palestiniens, ce qui est leur droit le plus total, mais excusent les terroristes palestiniens (qui tuent des innocents juste parce qu’ils sont juifs) et ferment les yeux sur l’antisémitisme dès lors qu’il est commis par un pro-palestinien (mais n’ont aucun mal à le condamner lorsqu’il vient de l’extrême-droite). Le moindre acte de sexisme commis par des europeens en europe est condamné en mais nous restons sourd aux comportement des musulmans en europe vis à vis des droits des femmes chez nous et nous debattons sur le droit de porter le voile de la HONTE d’etre femme à l’école .
Le discours des leaders altermondialistes auquel les jeunes se ralient est si simpliste qu’il devient dangereux .

Martin , aujourd’hui nous sont plus sensibles au Hezbollah libanais qui diffuse des feuilletons antisémites et glorifie les terroristes palestiniens comme des martyrs) et qui profite du flou qu’il y a dans la tête des gens pour passer d’un soutien à la cause palestinienne à des attaques contre les juifs et diluer les valeurs sexistes antidemocratiques et intolerables de l’islam . attention .

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me on May 6, 2007  · 

But who told you publish this? Lets leave them to their own. Does did any saudi women harmed you by the way? for you to be so jealous. Hello world ! please Stop poking.

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Fabian on May 9, 2007  · 

I am, in fact, in Saudi at this moment.
What you say is true, but you’ll be surprised of the amount of people supporting this life stile, including women.
They have no right to drive a car, cannot mingle with men in a restaurant having access only to “family section”, not allowed to speak to anyone not related to them unless for shopping or “decent” interaction..yet, there is a big number of people including young that want to restrict more this and forbid “tight”abayas…
Long and complicate debate…involving religion, fanaticism and honest believes.
Working here is one of the most disturbing and interesting experiences I’ve ever had.

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Martin Varsavsky on May 10, 2007  · 

Fabian, that must be one lonely stay!

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Fabian on May 11, 2007  · 

🙂 You know? I’m here with a couple of guys of our branch in Sausi and my assistant from Dubai so in terms of company I’m covered…but after 2 weeks around it starts to be like being in Big Brother or something, coz you hang out always with the same guys, and there’s no real interaction with locals other than the normal contact with the hotel crew.
What really stresses me out is that the only thing you get to see is men and covered women, and believe me that after awhile, you need to see some beauty around you and to chat with a girl freely if yo want without the controlling eyes of the religious police on you.
Lots of stories, Martin, like being kicked out of a mall because after 16:00 is only for families and a single guy is not allowed, or while drinking a coffee being asked to leave during praying time, which happens 5 times a day, by the way…
I am so looking forward to return to Dubai and hit the pub at the airport and drink a pint of Guinness.
Anyway, a lot of business opportunities around here, that’s one of the beauties of Middle East.
Take care Martin, and keep it up.

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Marion Fischel on July 6, 2007  · 

I understand that Saudi women control over 60% of the wealth in their country (and growing). It is obviously a system they are used to, and I am sure everyone manages to find a way to do what they want in the end, even if it has to wait until they travel abroad. I know first hand (from my high school graduation summer when I worked at a store next to the Savoy Hotel in London) that they wear fantastic gowns under their long black robes.

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mgoodi on February 24, 2008  · 

hey ppl wake up u do not know how saudi women r living ????
i swear to god saudi women the happiest women in the world i’m saudi i have a sisters n relatives n i ask them do u want to be like women in abroad they say with loud voice nooo
that means that they r enjoying their life n if u ask ur self who r those women has privet driver n like this stuff sure no women in the world have like this
so ppl wanna ask u if u dont know plz do not talke coz we know how they r living n no one come to n ask u help or tellin u that saudi women r not happy

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