Women in Saudi Arabia
One step forward, one step back
Progress for women is going into reverse under the new king
WHEN Hind Al-Otaibi went to the Riyadh Personal Status Court to have her father struck out as her wali, or guardian, the judges seemed sympathetic. Her father had raped and bruised her, Ms Otaibi, who was a teenager at the time, told the court. He refused to let her travel abroad, even to her mother's funeral, and when she escaped from home had persuaded social services to send her back. After consideration, the judges determined last year that her father, an imam from the Saudi interior of Nejd, remained her legal guardian; but that a guardian only had powers to approve his ward's marriage. If upheld on appeal, the ruling could topple the legal edifice of male control, depriving walis of their power over whether their women can study, work, travel or open bank accounts. “Emancipation from slavery,” says Ms Otaibi.
In recent years, the lot of Saudi women has improved. An increasing number of malls, gated communities and even private beaches, where women swap burqinis (the all-enveloping swimwear Saudi women must wear) for bikinis, were put off-limits to the prying eyes of the religious police. The government sent tens of thousands of women abroad to study in Western universities, where they could experience the freedom of moving, dressing and driving as they pleased. Those left behind could gawp at the gap between their own world and the virtual one to which many Saudis escape for hours every day.
Armed with doctorates, many have returned to prize open the job market. In 2012 the courts licensed their first female lawyer. Last December women for the first time stood for election to local councils. Bayan al-Zahran, a lawyer in Jeddah, has set up the first female-led law firm, and law faculties in women's colleges churn out fresh attorneys.
The numbers, though, remain paltry. Only 18% of working-age Saudi women work (against 65% of men), one of the world's lowest rates. And for all the headlines, the kingdom has only 67 female lawyers (out of 3,400), and 21 female councillors (out of 3,150). Female lawyers say they have to contend with judges who tell them to sit down when they stand up to represent clients. But over time the taboos on women in public life seem to fraying. “Women are better at representing other women because women natter more than men, and women understand them better,” says Judge Faisal Orani, fresh from sentencing a whisky-drinker to 80 lashes. He opposes the introduction of female judges, he says, “but over time, anything can change. Maybe I'll change too.”
The kingdom's joyless gender segregation persists. Banks maintain separate entrances for men and women, Starbucks restricts women from its open-air balcony and McDonald's makes men and women queue separately for its burgers.