Women’s rights everywhere have long been challenged, and are still unfairly abused in many places.
In a 21st century context, one of the places where women still find it very difficult to come by the same amenities and liberties as women elsewhere is Saudi Arabia.
The Middle-Eastern kingdom carries a lot of pride in their ancient traditions and their proud heritage, and sometimes, this can lead to a lack of flexibility when dealing with issues that have been defined on a global scale.
You see, as the world became united after WWII, it was deemed necessary to establish certain international norms that would have to be respected by every country. Order was to be maintained by an international body of arbitrators that would ensure that people everywhere could enjoy similar lifestyles, thereby preventing hatred and death in future.
But of course, that’s just the best-case scenario. To some extent, this was not the most important reason for the formation of the UN and other international committees. Many people saw it as a means by which the larger countries could continue to exercise their unhealthy influence over the poorer countries. But this time, there would be no resistance as every other country would be legally bound to accept their intervention.
And then, to compound it, these international committees seemed extremely financially-driven. Many of them bound countries by commercial deals that allowed them to overwhelm the poorer countries not only through military, financial and legal means, but also by cultural influence. The richer countries would flood the poorer ones with their products so as to exert powerful cultural influences and gain the trust of the populations around the world. The phenomenon was known as globalization.
In order to retain their culture and not be submerged in such issues, certain rulers decided to strictly enforce cultural & religious legislation. A loss of culture would literally be destroyed. Unfortunately, this meant that some societies failed to grow with the rest of the world.
Saudi Arabia bases its laws on a very heavy form of Sharia Law. It does not at all reflect the realities of the 21st century, and in many places, women are still being treated as if it where the 1800s or before. In Saudi Arabia, women aren’t allowed to drive, and need permission from male guardians to do most things. Education was strictly divided and gender-mixing was completely impermissible.
Women there haver higher death and infant mortality rates than men, and only 18.6% of the country’s workforce is female. They earn less and can be easily defeated by men in courts of law. It is not unheard of for a father to send his daughter to a mental institution, or take decisions regarding her career for her. Most women have no real freedom (as it is perceived in other countries) and are not allowed to wear anything that does not cover their entire bodies save from their eyes and hands.
But that is not the issue that much of the international community has with Saudi Arabia (i.e. whether women do certain things or not). The issue that the global community has is that the punishments for not conforming to these norms is disproportionately cruel. Whipping, stoning and domestic violence are legal and have only very recently begun to be looked at as real issues that need to be addressed.
Even worse, courts of law are almost permanently against women. An 18-year old victim of gang rape was sentenced to six months in prison and 200 lashes, because she supposedly broke several of the norms. Video evidence of her rape was denied as evidence in court and the boys were only charged with kidnapping her. Her brother then tried to murder her.
All of these things combine to give people a conclusion that women there are living unacceptable lives. Female activists are often jailed or killed for demanding the simplest of things, and pressure groups have been constantly fighting to give women there a chance to what is commonly perceived as liberty.
To some extent, the current leader of the nation, King Abdullah Ibn Abdulazziz has made changes that have benefited women. During his reign, the very first co-ed college was opened, and by next year, women will have the right to vote. He is seen as a much more laid-back character who is eager to see Saudi Arabia progress with the times, and wants to see his people live free of human rights transgression. Others say he does it all for show and is still very much dangerous to the human rights movements there.
One thing that has to be said to put the lives of women in Saudi Arabia into perspective, is that they’re not against everything. We often see people living lives that are completely criminal and we speak out, but several surveys and questionnaires (whose legitimacy is admittedly in doubt) claim that most Saudi Arabian women are completely at ease with their situation and would not want it changed for religious reasons.
So the question must beckon. Are women in Saudi Arabia having their rights breached to such an extent that foreign arbitrators should intervene? Is it something that has to be done by Saudi Arabian women? Do they even have the liberty to argue if they wanted to?
As long as these questions go unanswered, the future of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia will keep being violated, and I think the world should intervene.