Islamic Woman & the Saudi Arabian Society

by Alison Lake
Women in Saudi Arabia typically dress in full-length abayas.

Women in Saudi Arabia typically dress in full-length abayas.

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia follows its own brand of Islam, called Wahhabism, an ideology that developed in 18th century Arabia. Wahhabism promulgates a strict form of Shariah law that is largely unwritten but powerful in the kingdom. According to Human Rights Watch, "The Saudi guardianship system continues to treat women as minors. Under this discriminatory system, girls and women of all ages are forbidden from traveling, studying or working without permission from their male guardians."

Mingling Illegal

Women in Saudi households need the permission of the male head of their household, such as their father, husband or male guardian, to leave the Kingdom. Mingling among men and women is a punishable crime, and mainly happens in private since public places are segregated by sex. Exceptions include 'family-only' scheduled times at shopping malls, when married couples and their relatives may visit and shop together; 'family sections' of restaurants and professional and educational settings in the health sector. Religious police (Mutawwa) patrol public areas to enforce the law against mingling.

Dress and Purdah

Purdah, or the seclusion of women from the sight of men or strangers, is still widely practiced and enforceable by law. Seclusion pertains both to a woman's location and her form of dress. Women in most areas of Saudi Arabia, especially in the capital Riyadh and the country's central region, wear a full-body cloak called an abaya, which covers them head-to-toe in black even in desert temperatures. Women who resist the rules risk warning, detention or arrest.

Legal Precedents

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that still prohibits women from driving, although some women have attempted to protest the law. Women do not possess identity cards, which increases their dependency on men when they need to perform daily tasks. They often require authorization from a guardian to file a report with the police or speak with a health care professional. No law regulates the age of marriage and child marriage is not prohibited.

Wahhabism vs. Mainstream Islam

Muslim and non-Muslim voices inside and outside the country note that Saudi Arabia's interpretation of Islam regarding women is extreme and not according to the religion's original teachings. A 2009 United Nations report noted that "the 'modern' practices concerning women in Saudi Arabia stand in contrast to...the role women played during early Islam..." Opponents of Wahhabism state that Islam's traditions support social justice for women, and observe that the Prophet Muhammad married a woman 15 years his senior, a wealthy businesswoman named Khadijah who requested his hand in marriage. This and other traditions support this view that Wahhabism's restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia are not necessarily Islamic.

About the Author

Alison Lake has been a journalist and editor since 2001, working with numerous newspapers and magazines. She has served on the world news desk of the "Washington Post" and contributed to The Atlantic, Foreign Policy Online, Al Jazeera English and GlobalPost.

Photo Credits

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