NEW YORK (TrustLaw) - Small cracks have appeared in the political wall separating women from their rights in Saudi Arabia in the last year, but the wealthy and conservative kingdom remains one the world’s most repressive when it comes to women’s freedoms.
An absolute monarchy, heavily influenced by the ultra-conservative Wahhabi form of Islam, Saudi Arabia requires women to submit to male guardianship and guidance in nearly every aspect of their lives from cradle to grave.
This means control by a father, husband, brother, son or other male relative over where a woman goes outside the home, whether she attends school, what she studies, whether she works, whom she marries and even what medical procedures she undergoes.
As such, Saudi Arabia ranks second only to India as worst country for women among the world’s biggest economies, according to a global survey released on Wednesday by TrustLaw, a legal news service run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Among the top five worst places for women in the 19 countries that make up the Group of 20 richest nations (excluding the European Union), India and Saudi Arabia were followed by Indonesia, Mexico then South Africa, according to the perceptions survey of 370 gender specialists.
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“Given Saudi Arabia’s institutionalized and state-supported discrimination against women, it is surprising that Saudi Arabia did not rank lower,” said Yasmeen Hassan, global director of Equality Now, a New York-based organisation working to end violence and discrimination against women.
“Women and girls in Saudi Arabia are treated as perpetual minors living under male guardianship all their lives – with restrictions on employment, political participation, travel, education and healthcare,” added Hassan.
“They do not have the ability enter into marriages of their choice and have extremely limited rights within marriage. They are not allowed to drive or to enter the Olympics.”
She referred to Saudi Arabia’s lack of any state sports programmes for women and girls and its apparent decision to be the only country to send a male-only team to the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Taking the Koran, Islam’s holy book, as its constitution, Saudi Arabia follows sharia, or religious, law. The system provides women few legal protections in terms of property, freedom of movement, domestic violence and no guarantee of gender equality.
King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s 87-year-old ruler, has engaged in a gradual programme of social reforms, some of them easing some restrictions against women, despite strong opposition from the fundamentalist clerical establishment.
In September 2011, he decreed that Saudi women would have the right to vote in, and stand for office in, municipal elections starting in 2015.
In early 2012, he put into effect a decree that women would replace men as sales clerks in the kingdom’s more than 7,000 lingerie shops, a move that could reduce the 28-percent unemployment rate among Saudi women, according to reports of comments by Labour Minister Adel Faqih.
A similar change is expected to take effect in cosmetics shops this July.
A week after the government deadline to replace salesmen with women in lingerie shops, King Abdullah abruptly fired the hard-line chief of the country’s religious morality police, whose officers reportedly harassed some women who had taken the jobs.
For the new head of the unit, formally known as the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the king appointed a cleric who publicly had expressed more liberal views about women’s employment and the social mixing of men and women.
King Abdullah’s actions and the vocal backlash from conservative clerics may reflect the country’s internal struggle to redefine the role of women and the conflict between tradition and modernity. However, he decreed no change in the male guardianship system or in the ban on women driving.
Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world that forbids women to drive a car, a situation that has become symbolic of its discrimination against women.
On 11 June, Equality Now issued an alert calling on the Saudi government to lift the ban on women driving and asking for global support on the first anniversary of the “Women2Drive” campaign launched by Saudi activist Manal Al-Sharif.
On June17, women and men around the world are being asked to drive to Saudi embassies and consulates and honk their horns to protest against the driving ban on women.
In the TrustLaw survey, Canada was ranked the overall best G20 country for women, followed by Germany, Britain, Australia and France. The United States came sixth.
The TrustLaw survey asked respondents to rank the G20 countries in terms of the overall best and worst place to be a woman as well as in six categories: quality of health, freedom from violence, participation in politics, work place opportunities, access to resources such as education and property rights and freedom from trafficking and slavery. Survey respondents came from 63 nations on five continents.