COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

The Fight for Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia: Political Policy vs. Islamic Religon

In Culture, Religion on July 17, 2009 at 5:45 pm

by Kimberley Charles 

Since the beginning of civilization, one of the foremost issues experienced women has been the idea of gender bias in the form of discrimination. In nearly all societies, with the exception of tribes such as the Bantu in early Africa, the majority of civilizations were patriarchal- with women usually treated as a lower class all together. 

New ideas and innovations of later centuries has brought the world to the idea that women are not inferior to men in any way, shape or form. Sure, it took thousands of years, but the idea in itself has become manifested in on a global scale. We now live in world with an open mind and documents such as the Declaration of Human Rights (created in 1948), which extends ethical principles to every person born on this planet.

 

(AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

(AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

 

Yet, in existence are countries, which put women under strict laws and religious structure that often mimic times comparable to the beginnings of Islam. At this forefront is Saudi Arabia, along with a number of similar Middle Eastern Countries. 

Just to give you an idea of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, whenever in public, or even in the presence of their own homes, Saudi Arabian women are required to wear certain dress, called an abaya- all parts of the body covered with only a slit or sheer material covering the eyes and nose. Women are allowed to go to school and study, but are not allowed to study subjects such as law and engineering. They cannot travel or vote without permission from a male guardian or some sort of government office. 

So the real question is, where do these customs come from? Although believed to be religious, much of such Saudi Arabian ideals are of interpretation of Muhammad’s writings and political aspects of life. In fact, according to Muhammad, who made many sentiments about human rights, “The best of you is the best to his wives” in addition to, “God commands us to treat women nobly. The more civil and kind a Muslim is to his wife, the more perfect of faith he is.” It is easy to deduce in this sense that Muhammad never told his followers to treat women as a lower class and as inferiors. In any case, it is somewhat a proof to the sentiment that women’s rights (or more specifically, lack thereof) is more of a political policy than religious. 

In the realm of dressing, the Quran states, “Say to the believing women that they should not display their beauty and ornament except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosom and not display their beauty, except to their husbands, their father, husbands’ fathers, sons, their husbands’ sons, their brother’s sons or sister’s sons, their women, their slaves or male attendants who lack feet as to revel what they hide of their adornment.” As positively seen in this quotation, Islamic law does not state that women should wear shapeless robes which cover their entire body. As in numerous cultures, women must be modest and not indecorous in dressing and manner. It is understandable to say that Saudi Arabian law is that of the Quran, but it is a general belief that such ideas are somewhat radical and extreme. It is easy to see that the overlooked part of this quotation is the fact that men should outwardly show modesty to women as well; only family members can see a woman without such overbearing clothing. Muhammad wanted modesty, as did many other religious leaders and deities of other religions around the world. 

Regarding social, political, and economic activity, the Quran states minimal information. In accordance with the time it was written, the holy book did not necessarily lay down any laws for what women could and could not participate in. As according to the Quran, once again, “And they (women) have rights similar to those (of them) over them in kindness, and men are a degree above them.”  Noted in the words of Muhammad is the idea that men do have superiority- but that is not to say that women are inferior beings. At the time of its conception, women’s rights and suffrage was unheard of- therefore it is expectation that men would be the bread winners of most civilizations during Muhammad’s revelation. 

One facet of Saudi Arabian life, which is seen as untraditional from the sense of countries such as the United States is the fact that women, when allowed to study, are extremely limited in choice and career. As quoted from the Quran, “Seeking of knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim man and women.” According to teaching, women are more than encouraged to take up education. It would even be more specific to say that all of the believers and followers of Muhammad were and are encouraged to obtain any sort of learning. Yet, women in countries such as Saudi Arabia are not allowed to study a great amount of subjects due to unquestioned male superiority. 

Luckily, however, women in Saudi Arabia are slowly seeing their lives turn for the better in consideration of women’s rights. The level of education in places like Saudi Arabia has slowly increased since 1991. More and more women are campaigning for their rights on a political scale. Books such as The Dawn of Saudi, by Homa Pourasgari, has opened up a new horizon for change. 

Works cited: 

Al-Hariri, Rafeda. Islam’s Point of view on Women’s Education in Saudi Arabia. 1st ed. Vol. 23. Ser. 10. Taylor and Francis, Ltd. JSTOR. 10 June 2009.

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