Country Governance

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POGAR > Countries > Country Theme: Gender: Saudi Arabia
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Conditions of Women

Women have a sharply restricted role in public life in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Although the status of women has improved in the areas of education and employment, the lack of human rights for every citizen severely hampers the ability of women to enjoy these gains.

Since the 1960s, Saudi Arabia has made substantial gains in the education of women. Primary enrollment rates for girls have reached 66%, with secondary enrollment at 64% and higher education enrollment at 25%, versus enrollment for men at 69%, 71% and 20%, respectively. 58% of all university students are women. However, women are still limited from studying some subjects, such as engineering, journalism, and architecture. According to the World Bank, 33.1% of adult women are illiterate, compared to only 17% of adult men.

Unfortunately, the economic usefulness of women’s education remains limited by the segregated work force. Women comprise 16% of the labor force, which is barely over half of the regional average. Women are primarily employed in education, health care, and civil service jobs, which can more easily be sex-segregated. According to Amnesty International, approximately 16,390 businesses are owned by women and females own 40% of the nation’s private wealth. Nevertheless, most women allow male relatives to control their economic interests rather than accept these public responsibilities.

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Law of Personal Status

Legal matters pertaining to women are usually the purview of Islamic courts that use religious law as the basis for decisions. The Council of Senior Ulama makes the final interpretation of Islamic law in Saudi Arabia with the consent of the king. The Saudi government’s interpretation of Islam has sharply curtailed women’s role in public life. A man’s testimony is equal to that of two women in court. A man may receive a divorce simply upon request, while a woman must win a legal decision to separate. Additionally, women are required to remain segregated from all males who are not members of their household. Therefore, all workplaces must be segregated by sex. Women cannot receive driver’s licenses, nor are they allowed to be driven by men who are not family members. A woman must obtain the written consent of a male family member to receive medical treatment.

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Gender Reforms

Currently, there is little organized political activity by women. All public meetings must be sex-segregated and women are not allowed to conduct public meetings by themselves. But in the business sector the general assembly of the Saudi-Dutch Bank elected Mrs. Lubna Al-Alyyan as a member of the Bank's Board of Directors on December 1, 2004. She is the chief executive officer of Olayan Corporation and a member of the Arab Business Council, a subsidiary of the Global Economic Forum. In recent years, government officials have discussed granting identity cards to women. This would be the first step towards women’s legal independence by giving then an identity distinct from their husbands or fathers. That could serve as the basis for granting passports, offering bank loans, and other means of increasing women’s autonomy. Crown Prince Abdullah, the Deputy Premier, has made public statements in support of increasing women’s role in public life.

Two women are members of the Majlis Al-Shura, a 120 member national consultative council appointed by the king. In the summer of 2000, Princess Al-Jawhara Fahad bin Mohammed bin Abdel Rahman al-Saud was appointed assistant undersecretary for Education Affairs—the highest position ever held by a woman in the Saudi government. And on April 12, 2007 the klng issued a decree appointing the first Saudi woman as president of a university. Princess Dr. Al-Jawhara bint Fahd Al-Saud was appointed president of Riyadh University for Women after having served for ten years as dean of the College of Education for Women in Riyadh and undersecretary of education for women's colleges.

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Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)

In October 2000, the Saudi government signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) with a reservation for conflicts with Islamic law. To achieve the goals set out in the CEDAW, Saudi Arabia still needs to make substantial progress towards gender equity. The Saudi minister of interior approved on April 22, 2005 the modified list of the citizenship regulations that was issued in October 1945 and had not been modified since that date. Article 17 now states that a Saudi woman will not lose her citizenship if she marries a foreigner unless she chooses to obtain her husband's citizenship. Saudi Arabia does not allow dual citizenship.

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