This report is based on 109 interviews conducted in Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, and al-Ahsa in November and December 2006 during Human Rights Watch’s first fact-finding visit to Saudi Arabia. During this three-week investigation, a female researcher interviewed Saudi women from a range of professional and socioeconomic backgrounds both privately and in group settings in their homes. Interviews were conducted in Arabic for the most part and interviewees were identified largely with the assistance of Saudi human rights activists. This report also draws on meetings with government officials in Riyadh during a short visit in March 2008. That visit, coordinated by the Human Rights Commission of Saudi Arabia, provided the opportunity for the government and Human Rights Watch to discuss our report findings and recommendations prior to publication.

The identity of interviewees has been disguised with pseudonyms, and in some cases certain other identifying information has been withheld, to protect their privacy. Identifying information for other individuals has been withheld in some cases for the same reasons. All participants were informed of the purpose of the interview, its voluntary nature, and the ways in which the data would be collected and used, and verbally consented to be interviewed.

I. Background on Women’s Rights and the Role of the Religious Establishment

Here we understand [human] nature as static. We think that women can do certain things but not others.

—Dr. A.A. al-Abdulhai, professor, King Saud University, Riyadh, November 29, 2006  

The religious character of Saudi Arabia, whereby the state is the guardian of religion and all that it requires in human conduct, has a direct bearing on women’s status in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia applies Sharia (Islamic law) as the law of the land. The first article of the kingdom’s Basic Law of Governance elevates the Quran and the Prophet’s traditions (Sunna) to the status of a constitution.1 Consequently, the religious establishment plays a central role in the country’s governance and has broad influence over many aspects of everyday life.2 It is largely in control of all levels of education in the kingdom and the all-male judiciary, as well as of the policing of “public morality” through the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (the religious police, al-hisba).3

Notwithstanding the diversity of its views in other areas, the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia has by and large opposed the empowerment of Saudi women. The Council of Senior Religious Scholars,4 an official body created as a forum for regular consultation between the monarch and the religious establishment, successfully orchestrated Saudi Arabia’s withdrawal from the 1994 United Nations Population and Development Conference in Cairo. The Council disapproved of the conference topics, which included birth control, abortion, equality between men and women, and co-education, which it said were “against the laws of God and against the laws of nature.”5  

The Permanent Council for Scientific Research and Legal Opinions (CRLO), the official institution in Saudi Arabia entrusted with issuing Islamic legal opinions (fatawa, sing. fatwa), has also consistently promoted opinions that restrict women’s rights. As one scholar noted, “Perhaps it does not come as a surprise that in most determinations, if the rights of women must be balanced against the rights of others, the CRLO consistently demands that women bear the burden of the loss of rights.”6 For example, when the Council was asked in the late 1990s whether delaying marriage until a woman finished her secondary or university education was religiously acceptable, it issued the following fatwa:  

For a woman to progress through university education, which is something we have no need for, is an issue that needs examination. What I see [to be correct] is that if a woman finishes elementary school and is able to read and write, and so she is able to benefit by reading the Book of God, its commentaries, and Prophetic hadith, that is sufficient for her. This is so unless she excels in a field that people need, such as medicine or its like, and as long as this study involves nothing prohibited, such as the mixing of the sexes and other things.7

When asked what the Islamic ruling is with respect to women’s employment, the Council said,

God Almighty … commended women to remain in their homes. Their presence in the public is the main contributing factor to the spread of fitna [strife]. Yes, the Shari’ah permits women to leave their home only when necessary, provided that they wear hijab and avoid all suspicious situations. However, the general rule is that they should remain at home.8 

Much of the support for attributing to women a diminished personhood is found among these conservative religious scholars, and the Saudi royal family, absolute rulers of the kingdom, has been careful in taking measures that would upset the religious establishment and the latter’s place in the balance of power in the kingdom. As a reflection of this balancing act, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Sa’ud al-Faisal, told Human Rights Watch, “Any decision that does not break the social fabric we will take. We are very much sensitive to the social cohesion of the country. We are a new country where social cohesion is very important.”9 

1 According to the Basic Law of Governance (1992), Saudi Arabia’s “constitution is the Almighty God’s Book, The Holy Quran, and the Sunna (Traditions) of the Prophet (PBUH).” See Basic Law of Governance, Umm al-Qura Newspaper (Mekka), issue 3397, March 6, 1992, art. 1.

2 The “religious establishment” in Saudi Arabia consists of clerics whom the government has officially appointed and employed and individuals who belong to religious organizations that receive state support.

3 This Commission (al-hisba) is an early institution of the Islamic state, where, in Egypt, for example, its powerful officials regulated weights, measures, and proper dealings in the marketplace.

4 The Council of Senior Religious Scholars is headed by Grand Mufti Shaikh Abd al-‘Aziz Al al-Shaikh who issues the official interpretations of Islamic law in Saudi Arabia with the consent of the King. For more information on the Council and the role of religion in the kingdom, see Frank E. Vogel, Islamic Law and Legal System: Studies of Saudi Arabia (Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2000).

5 Amani Hamdan, “Women and Education in Saudi Arabia: Challenges and Achievements,” International Education Journal, vol.6 (1) (2005), p. 56.

6  Khaled Abou El Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority, and Women (Oxford: One World Publications, 2001), p. 192.

7 Ibid., p. 274.

8 Ibid., p. 288.

9 Human Rights Watch interview with Prince Sa’ud al-Faisal, minister of foreign affairs, Riyadh, December 2, 2006.