September 27, 2010

II. Loosening the Shackles on Women

There has been some loosening of rules over the past years when it comes to sex segregation, as well as some public debate and challenges to the mores and strictures that have traditionally kept women largely out of the public sphere and dependent on men for even the most basic life decisions. However, systematic violations of women’s rights continue, and religious police still arbitrarily enforce presumed rules of morality. Government efforts to combat domestic violence or end child marriage have remained weak.[50] There also have not been any legislative efforts to establish women’s equal rights.

Women in Saudi Arabia may also not drive cars. When 15-year-old Malak al-Mutairi drove a car and towed the half-submerged vehicle her father and other family members were in, thereby rescuing them from the November 2009 Jeddah flash floods that killed over 120 persons, she was hailed as a hero, but officials still did not reconsider the ban on women driving.[51]

Male Guardianship

One restriction on women’s rights that persists is the system of male guardianship that shackles adult women to the decisions of male relatives. King Abdullah has made only one small change to this system, by decreeing in January 2008 that women could stay in hotels without a male guardian.[52] As crown prince in 2004, Abdullah issued a decree permitting businesswomen to open businesses without guardian approval. In 2009, the government pledged to abolish the guardianship system, but has taken no legislative steps to overturn the system.[53]

Saudi authorities continue to require a woman to show her male guardian’s consent to travel for each foreign journey or on yellow travel cards, allowing one year of domestic travel.[54] In July 2010, Wajeha al-Huwaider, a Saudi woman traveling abroad, reported that her male guardian received a government-issued text message on his mobile phone informing him of her travel.[55] One example of how this system restricts women’s freedom is that of 24-year-old Nazia Quazi, a dual Canadian-Indian national. Her Indian father and male guardian, who works in Saudi Arabia, refused his daughter permission to leave the kingdom for three years because he disapproved of her fiancé, but the Saudi government did not intervene.[56]

Other forms requiring guardian consent for employment remain in place, though they are not always enforced. Hospitals, private and governmental, also still require male guardian permission for women to undergo certain surgical procedures.[57] Saudi courts also have continued to uphold guardianship requirements even in hotly contested cases. In January 2010, a Buraida court sentenced Sawsan Salim to 300 lashes and one-and-a-half years in prison for “appearing … without a male guardian” at government offices.[58]

The implications of the guardianship system can be severe, including preventing women from escaping restrictive or abusive homes. One Saudi woman in June 2010 told Human Rights Watch that her brothers, who are her guardians, beat her and then married her off against her will three times to men for money, who also beat her.[59] Another Saudi woman, whose brother is her guardian, told Human Rights Watch in August 2009 that her brother had raped her when she was a child, and later twice married her off to men against her will. She was now divorced, and lived with her infant daughter from the second marriage in her brother’s house. He beat her, but she could not live elsewhere without his consent as her guardian.[60]  In August 2009, the Financial Times reported on the case of Lulwa Abd al-Rahman, whose father rejected her suitors, then retracted his permission for her to work in a bank, locked her in the family home, and beat her. When she sued in court to have his guardianship over her removed, the judge ordered her to return to her father’s house, the Times reported.[61]  Al-Madina newspaper in September 2009 reported that police in Medina had detained a 20-year-old woman at the Social Protection House because her father refused to pick her up from the police station where she had gone to seek help. Her father had earlier prohibited her engagement to a man, leading her to run away from home for two days.[62]

Sex Segregation and Women at Work

The past four years have seen a vigorous and public domestic debate about what constitutes permissible interactions for men and women, such as at work meetings or large gatherings, referred to as “innocent mingling,” or inappropriate seclusion for immoral purposes, such as a man and a woman alone together in a closed environment.

King Abdullah has encouraged women’s education and entry into the workforce, and tolerated increased visibility of women in public, but most of his gestures have been symbolic, with no institutional or legal affirmation. For example, he allowed a photograph of himself surrounded by more than 35 female participants in the seventh National Dialogue in Najran not wearing face covering to be published on the front page of Okaz newspaper (see title picture of this report). What loosening has taken place, reflects both changes in social attitudes and government policies. This debate has led to a looser application of sex segregation in public places, like restaurants and shopping malls.

In the workplace, the new Saudi Labor Law, which came into force in 2006, no longer includes an explicit provision requiring sex segregation, instead conditioning in Article 4 all work-related provisions on the more vague “adhere[nce] to the rulings of the Islamic Shari'a.”[63] King Abdullah has also encouraged women to enter the workplace by dropping certain licensing requirements. Royal decree No. 187 of 2005 allows “private enterprises to open sections employing women without a licence being required.”[64] In 2004, Council of Ministers Resolution 120 allowed women to apply for business licenses.[65] And in an important symbolic message, King Abdullah in November 2009 fired a cleric who had criticized gender mixing at KAUST, and reinstated the chief of the religious police in Mecca in April 2010 who was fired for declaring certain forms of gender mixing permissible.[66]

However, work places and educational facilities remain highly segregated, in large part due to the opposition by the religious establishment and other conservatives. Indeed, resistance of men and women coming into close contact with each other is so strong that some conservatives have opposed women working altogether.[67]  Nor has the new Saudi Labor Law changed the reality on the ground for most women, who continue to study and work in different buildings or in different sections from men. One exception is the newly inaugurated King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), and Aramco, the state-owned national oil company, which has long allowed men and women to work together in its closed-off compounds in the Eastern Province.[68] Neither institution, however, has wider bearing on the rest of Saudi society, and their symbolic importance for the rest of the country remains limited.

The unease that surrounds women working, and also coming into contact with men, is illustrated by the debate over lingerie stores.[69] In March 2006, the Labor Ministry warned that under a new decree, male workers in such shops, who are all non-Saudi, would be prohibited from selling lingerie to women by June and that female salesclerks would take over.[70] Under fierce attack from conservative clerics opposed to women leaving the house to work, the ministry in May of that year announced it would not be enforcing the decree by the stipulated deadline.[71] The dispute over which was the greater evil: Saudi women working or coming into contact with foreign men, remained unsettled. The chief of the religious police, Ibrahim al-Ghaith, declared in December 2008 that he was not opposed to women working in lingerie stores, earning him a rebuke from the grand mufti, Abd al-‘Aziz Al al-Shaikh, who opposed such work for women, saying “we should not involve them in matters far from their nature.”[72]

Religious Police

The arbitrary imposition by religious police—formally known as the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice—of “moral rules” on society, in particular on women’s attire and their “mingling” with men , has prompted King Abdullah to at least curtail some of its powers.

Many Saudis have directed a great deal of anger at transgressions by the commission and shown an unwillingness to allow their continued excesses in the name of upholding virtue. Most recently in May 2010, Saudi media widely reported on two incidents that illustrate public frustration with the religious police: a woman in Hofuf, in eastern Saudi Arabia, assaulted a religious policeman, and a woman in Ha’il, in the north of the country, fired a gun at another religious policeman; both women had been stopped because they were in the company of an unrelated man.[73]

Responding to public discontent, the interior minister in 2006 instructed the religious police not to arrest suspects without the presence of the regular police, and in 2007 banned the religious police from detaining suspects at their own police stations, requiring suspects to be handed over to the regular police.[74] In 2007, the head of the religious police, Shaikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith, also instructed members of the force to no longer check mobile phone records to see whether unrelated men and women in were in a relationship.[75] In April 2008, al-Ghaith added a ban on engaging in high speed car chases of suspected unmarried couples, and in September of that year added a ban on religious police entering family sections of restaurants.[76]

Still, the religious police paid little heed to these new orders, and the Saudi media has continued to spotlight religious police flouting these restrictions on their law enforcement powers. “Despite the Ban … Pursuits Continue!!!” Al-Riyadh newspaper headlined an article on a recent high-speed car chase by religious policemen in May 2009.[77]  Online discussion forums highlighted another case in May 2010, in which attendants at morning prayer in a mosque next to the religious police station in the northern city of Tabuk alerted the (regular) police to a woman’s screams they heard coming from the station. The police rescued the woman, whom the religious police had arrested for seeking a ride at a bus stop and detained her at their station in violation of standing policy, and apparently also beat her.[78]

Domestic Violence

One previously taboo issue that has attracted significant attention and public debate in the kingdom is domestic violence. Despite increased attention, King Abdullah and his government have taken few concrete measures over the past four years to address the problems of domestic violence. The government has been unable or unwilling to pass a law criminalizing domestic violence and offering protection, redress, and rehabilitation to its victims.

Human rights activists and groups, including Dr. Maha Munif and Wajeha al-Huwaider, and groups such as the National Society for Human Rights, have highlighted individual cases of domestic violence against women and children to generate public awareness and to lift the veil of shame obscuring access to justice for its victims. In May 2010, al-Huwaider helped to produce a short film, I Want to Feel Safe, published online, detailing how the guardianship system trapped women in their homes and exposed them to violence.[79] In 2005, Munif helped establish the National Family Safety Program for victims of domestic violence after winning royal support.[80] It now provides some services to victims of domestic violence, including operating shelters, and setting up specialized domestic violence units within hospitals. The program also gathers statistics by registering victims in a national database. Many victims though remain outside the system.[81] In 2007, the NSHR noted the “high rate of [domestic violence] cases” it received, and urged “issuing legislation that [criminalizes domestic] violence and imposes severe punishment for offenders.”[82] The NSHR in its 2009 report again observed a “noticeable increase” in domestic violence, and called for “Activating the strategy that restricts [domestic] violence.”[83]Majed Garoub, the head of the Jeddah lawyers’ committee, in a series of three articles published in Al-Watan in May-June 2010, urged the adoption of specific measures against domestic violence. To date, however, King Abdullah has not acted upon the recommendations. Garoub urged putting in place a general criminal law that classifies acts of domestic violence as crimes; training police to respond to cases, accept complaints and enter houses without a woman’s male guardian present; speeding up referrals of cases for prosecution; and not allowing prosecutors to suspend or stop prosecution of cases even if a victim withdraws her civil claims. He also urged courts to expedite domestic violence cases; the creation of special sections for such cases; and the removal of obstacles to judicial redress for women, including problems of appointing an attorney, appearing without a guardian, and establishing her identity in court.[84]

In late February 2010, Justice Minister Muhammad al-‘Isa announced that a new law would soon accredit women lawyers to allow them to appear in court for the first time, but restrict the cases they are allowed to litigate to child custody, divorce, marriage, and other family related issues.[85] Female lawyers would only be allowed to have female clients, too. Despite these restrictions, the handful of women lawyers in the kingdom hailed the announcement as a professional development for women, and social activists applauded the expected increased access of women to justice.[86] By July 2010 nothing had come of the law.

International agencies also have furthered discussion on the sensitive subject of domestic violence. In 2008, Yakin Ertürk, the then-UN special rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, conducted a field visit to the kingdom. In her April 2009 report she noted that a draft law on domestic violence had not yet been adopted.[87] Her visit led cleric Dr. Abdullah al-Habdan to ask on his website “Does the Saudi Woman Need the United Nations to Save Her?”, while others hailed the government’s permission for a forcibly divorced couple to remarry as a goodwill gesture to Ertürk.[88]

For the past four years King Abdullah and his government have taken few concrete measures to address the problems of domestic violence. The government has been unable or unwilling to pass a law criminalizing domestic violence and offering protection, redress, and rehabilitation to its victims. The government did create a National Family Safety program in 2005, which now provides some services to victims of domestic violence, including registering them in a database, operating shelters, and setting up specialized domestic violence units within hospitals.[89] Nevertheless, many victims remain outside the system.[90]

In other matters affecting women’s rights, such as forced marriages and divorce, equality in citizenship and personal status matters, the government has not even begun studying the issues civil society has identified. Only after the marriage of an eight-year-old girl to a man in his fifties, twice court-approved but later dissolved with the consent of all parties, did the Human Rights Commission and the Justice Ministry vow in January 2009 to draft a law addressing early marriage.[91] Over one year later, nothing has come of the effort.[92]

[50] Human Rights Watch, Perpetual Minors: Human Rights Abuses Stemming from Male Guardianship and sex segregation in Saudi Arabia, April 2008, .

[51] Muna al-Haidari, “Malak al-Mutairi Drove the GMC and Saved Her Father and 8 Family Members from the Floods in al-Harazat Valley,” Al-Riyadh, January 6, 2010, (accessed June 18, 2010).

[52] “Saudi Arabia Eases Rules for Women in Hotels,” Reuters, January 21, 2008, (accessed June 18, 2010).

[53] “Saudi Arabia: Outcome Report of the Universal Periodic Review,” Human Rights Watch news release, June 10, 2009,

[54] “Saudi Arabia: Women’s Rights Promises Broken,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 8, 2009,

[55] Human Rights Watch email communication with Wajeha al-Huwaider, July 25, 2010.

[56] Nadya Khalife (Human Rights Watch), “Trapped in Saudi Arabia,” commentary, May 7, 2010,

[57] “Saudi Arabia: Free Advocate for Shia Rights,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 23, 2010,

[58] “Saudi Arabia: Free Woman Who Sought Court Aid,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 2, 2010,

[59] Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with a Saudi woman, name withheld, June 2010.

[60] Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with a Saudi woman, name withheld, August 2009.

[61] Abeer Allam, “Saudi Women Face Uphill Battle in Abuse Cases,” Financial Times, August 24, 2009, (accessed April 5, 2010).

[62] Ibtisam al-Mubarak, “Father In Medina Refuses to Receive his ‘Escaped’ Daughter,” Al-Madina, September 30, 2009, (accessed October 1, 2009).

[63] The Labor Law, September 27, 2005, art. 4.

[64] Eleanor Doumato, “Saudi Arabia,” in: Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, 2009 Gulf Edition, Freedom House, p. 94, footnote 38. See also: UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Yakin Ertürk, visit to Saudi Arabia, A/HRC/11/6/Add.3, April 14, 2009, (accessed June 24, 2010).

[65] Ibid. See also: Asmaa al-Mohamed, “Saudi Women’s Rights,” Arab Insight. Bringing Middle Eastern Perspectives to Washington, vol. 2, no. 1, Winter 2008.

[66] Lamis Hoteit and Courtney C. Radsch, “Saudi cleric sacked over co-ed university spat,”, October 4, 2009, and Caryle Murphy, “Saudi Religious Police Chief Risks Job by Backing Mixing 0f Sexes,” The National (Abu Dhabi), April 27, 2010, (accessed September 3, 2010).

[67] In a long drawn-out court case in the 1980s and 1990s, Lulwa al-Mutlaq demanded compensation because the religious police had closed her photography studio, despite having the necessary permissions from the Ministry of Interior. Several court documents on file with Human Rights Watch shed light on women’s ability to conduct business. For example, General President of the Fatwa Office, Abd al-‘Aziz bin Abdullah bin Baz, on March 10, 1985, wrote to the interior minister “requesting  [him] to close the private photo studio for women and to take a pledge from its owner not to open a similar studio, because … it is a means to open the door to great evil.” Letter from Abd al-‘Aziz  bin Abdullah bin Baz, General President of the Fatwa Office, to Minister of Interior, no 16002/1 , dated 18/6/1405 (March 10, 1985). Another court document references a fatwa by the Senior Religious Scholars Council of May 28, 1981, in response to Ministry of Interior requests on behalf of shop owners wanting to open women’s departments managed by women“that it is not allowed to open such places according to the Sharia since it results in great harm, as has been seen in other countries that allowed this kind of business, and since women can manage their needs with the help of their guardians.”

[68] “Saudi Arabia: New University a Chance to Expand Freedom,” Human Rights Watch news release, September, 23, 2009,

[69] See documents from Lulwa al-Mutlaq’s court case above.

[70] “Saudi Government Bans Men From Selling Lingerie,” Agence France Press, March 22, 2006.

[71] Kingdom Delays Plans to Replace Salesmen in Lingerie Shops,” Reuters, May 15, 2010.

[72] “Saudi Religious Police Deny Ban on Lingerie Saleswomen,” Agence France Presse, December 23, 2008, and “Saudi Mufti Says No to Lingerie Saleswomen,” Middle East Online, December 24, 2008, (accessed July 2, 2010).

[73] Nesrine Malik, “ Female attacks on religious police show shift in Saudi values,“ The Guardian Comment is Free, May 26, 2010, (accessed July 23, 2010).

[74] A ban on the religious police detaining suspects has existed since 1981, but was reaffirmed in 2006 and 2007. US-Saudi agreement, “Confirmation of Policies,” unpublished document, July 2006, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[75] Mishari Shadawi, “Al-Ghaith: ‘Commission’ Members Prohibited from Confiscating Mobiles Unless They Are a Means in a Crime,” Al-Watan newspaper, June 11, 2007, (accessed July 4, 2010).

[76] Khalid al-Zaidan, “5 Thousand Members Sign That They are Prohibited from ‘Pursuit’,” Al-Riyadh newspaper, April 2, 2008, (accessed July 4, 2010). , “Head of the ‘Commission’ Affirms Ban on its Men Entering Family Restaurants in Jeddah Without Permission,”, September 20, 2008, (accessed July 4, 2010).

[77] Manahi al-Shaibani, “Despite the Ban … Pursuits Continue!!! Citizen Objects to ‘Commission’s Pursuit of His Son in Seclusion with Girl!!,” Al-Riyadh newspaper, May 5, 2009, (accessed July 4, 2010).

[78] “Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution Interrogates Tabuk Commission Members in the Case of the Detained Girls,” Najran newspaper, (accessed June 18, 2010).

[79] “I Want to Feel Safe,” Society for the Defense of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia, short film clip published on YouTube, (accessed July 4, 2010).

[80] Qanta Ahmed, “Invisible Women at Work: Meet Maha Al-Muneef, the Gloria Steinem of Arabia,” Huffington Post, (accessed July 4, 2010).

[81] “Seminar in Jeddah Chamber on the Role of Judicial Security Institutions to Combat Domestic Violence,” Saudi News Agency W.A.S, Jeddah, January 18, 2009, (accessed June 18, 2010).

[82] National Society for Human Rights, “First Report on Human Rights in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia 2006,” Riyadh, May 2007, p. 46 (English translation).

[83] National Society for Human Rights, “Second Report on the Status of Human Rights in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Riyadh, March 2009, references are on p. 33, p. 4, and p. 64 (English translation).

[84] Majed Mohammed Garoub, “Domestic Violence,” three-part series, Al-Watan, May-June 2010,,, and (accessed June 18, 2010).

[85] Walaa Hawari, “New Law to Allow Women Lawyers to Take Up Family Issues,” Arab News, February 25, 2010 (accessed February 25, 2010).

[86] Tala al-Hejailan, “Judicial Reforms Give Hope to Lawyers,” Arab News, March 8, 2010, (accessed March 9, 2010).

[87] United Nations Human Rights Council, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Yakin Ertürk, Mission to Saudi Arabia,” A/HRC/11/6/Add.3, Geneva, April 14, 2009, p. 25.

[88]  Abdullah al-Habdan, “Does the Saudi Woman Need the United Nations to Save Her?,” Islamlight, (accessed July 19, 2010); “Yakin Ertürk: I Focused My Visit on Researching Developments in the Judicial System … and the Gender Separation in the Workplace,” Eastern Province Education Discussion Forum, February 17, 2008, (accessed July 19, 2010).

[89] “Our Scope of Work,” The National Family Safety Program, (accessed July 4, 2010).

[90] “Seminar in Jeddah Chamber [of Commerce] on the Role of Judicial Security Institutions to Combat Domestic Violence,” Saudi News Agency W.A.S, Jeddah, January 18, 2009, (accessed June 18, 2010).

[91] Laura Bashraheel, “HRC welcomes Justice Ministry move to stop child marriages,” Arab News, January 20, 2009.

[92] “Young Saudi girl's marriage ended,” BBC news, (accessed June 18, 2010).