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What does it mean to be a woman in Saudi Arabia?

Authors: Oh Ee Ting, Toh Jo Lyn Megan

Editor: Ho Chia Chun Daniel

4 years ago, a video of a woman wearing a short skirt and crop top while walking along a heritage site in Saudi Arabia went viral when she was brought in for questioning by the police for wearing “indecent” clothing (Weaver and Mahmood, 2017). This sparked a backlash on social media platforms where many fiercely defended the woman’s actions, drawing attention to Saudi Arabia’s restrictive rules on women.

Since then, there has been a series of changes to the guardianship law led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This is in line with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, a plan to transform the country socially and economically. In fact, the government has implemented 90 major human rights reforms in the last few years with a strong emphasis on women empowerment and rights (Sati, 2021). However, the effectiveness of these reforms leaves room for debate.

What is the guardianship law?

The guardianship law is essentially the systematic subjugation of women. Under this system, every woman is required to have a male guardian who has the authority to make decisions on her behalf (Equality Now, 2021). Although a woman’s male guardian is usually her father or husband, there are also cases where her brother or even her son may act as her guardian. This means that women in Saudi Arabia are treated as legal minors and this has taken away economic, social, and educational opportunities from Saudi women.

The law is said to be based on a narrow interpretation of a Quran verse that purportedly states that “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women” (BBC, 2019). This interpretation has been widely disputed by academics who argue that guardianship is not mandated by Sharia (Human Rights Watch, 2016).

Changes brought about by Vision 2030

2019 marked a turning point for the country as women were granted more rights such as gaining the ability to make their own decisions medically and traveling abroad without a guardian. This has some key implications.

Firstly, there have been significant improvements in female mobility. Women are now allowed to drive, get their own passports and travel abroad without a male guardian. The lifting of the driving ban allows women to move around independently without a private driver or male guardian, increasing their freedom and safety. Furthermore, being able to travel overseas has allowed women to tap on scholastic and employment opportunities abroad (Omran, 2020).

Secondly, the administration has taken measures to encourage female labour participation. It removed clauses from the labour law that reduced women’s work to certain fields and allowed women to work without requiring consent from their male guardian (Human Rights Watch, 2016). Legal provisions now protect women from discrimination in the workplace such as firing pregnant female employees and unfair hiring practices (Sati, 2021).

This has had a positive impact on employment outcomes as female workforce participation has almost doubled to 33% in just 4 years (England, 2021). There also appears to be a change in mindset as people are more accepting of working women. One example of this is the employment of more than 200 women by the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques (Khashogji, 2021). This shows efforts taken to promote female presence in the Saudi workforce and for the society to be more gender inclusive as a whole.

Thirdly, there have been some provisions to increase women political participation by endowing them with the right to vote and run as electoral candidates (Human Rights Watch, 2016). These are important as it allows women and men to stand at an equal footing in the political sphere and magnifies the female voice to build momentum for change.

Are these changes really effective?

However, loopholes in the system undermine the degree to which women are actually accorded their supposed rights. Despite adjusting various aspects of the guardianship law, the fact remains that women are still subjected to the authority of their male guardian as their guardian’s words are taken as fact. Guardians are still endowed with a lot of power as they are able to make claims for “taghayyub” (which means absence) or “disobedience”. This means that guardians could report women as missing persons to the authorities which would try to locate them and bring them home. Hence, women are still at the whims of their guardians despite not requiring permission to leave their homes in the eyes of the law (Chopra, 2019).

Moreover, in spite of the reforms made, the government is still arresting women rights activists like Loujian al-Hathloul. In 2018, Al-Hathloul openly protested against the ban on women driving and famously drove herself back from the airport in her own car. Despite the government lifting the driving ban weeks after her arrest, she was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison (Tanis, 2021). She was also tortured, sexually assaulted and barred from outside communication in detention. Though she has since been released from prison, the police have the right to detain her at any time if she is suspected of “criminal activity” (Human Rights Watch, 2021). This prevents her from resuming her activism for women’s rights and forces her to remain silent to avoid being arrested.

Unfortunately, this is the reality for many other activists like her and it undercuts the effectiveness of the recent reforms.

Why is it so important economically to empower women?

The exclusion of women in the workplace represents significant opportunities lost for Saudi Arabia. Women in Saudi Arabia surprisingly enjoy high levels of education, with female literacy rates of 91 percent. The education ministry also regularly provides scholarships for women to study abroad (Drury, 2015). This means that Saudi Arabia has severely underutilised its female labour resources which is a huge economic cost to society.

Studies have shown that gender gaps in countries cost their respective economy at least 15% of their GDP (Ferrant and Kolev, 2016). This means that empowering women in terms of providing them with the right to be employed would significantly raise a country’s GDP level and promote inclusive growth. This is particularly important for Saudi Arabia as it has the largest employment gender gap in the world at 38% and the exclusion of women can carry large costs for the country's economy (Tyson and Klugman, 2017).


Patriarchal norms and gender disparities have existed in Saudi society for the longest time. While the country is making progress to improve the situation, it is not enough. An overhaul of the guardianship system is required to make significant fundamental changes in women’s lives. Otherwise, with legal loopholes, they will always be at the mercy of their male guardians and lack any autonomy to pursue better lives.

The government also needs to match its social reforms with political reforms. Its crackdown on women rights activists has cast doubt on its commitment to upholding women rights (Human Rights Watch, 2021). It would be beneficial for the authorities to facilitate national conversations with the activists to understand women’s woes and come up with better gender policies in order to progress towards gender equality.


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3. Boxed in. Human Rights Watch. (2016, July 16). Retrieved November 4, 2021, from

5. Drury, S. (2015, July 30). Education: The key to women's empowerment in Saudi Arabia? Middle East Institute. Retrieved November 4, 2021, from

6. England, A. (2021, October 19). Saudi attitudes to women in the workplace change as job market gets kickstart. Financial Times.

7. Equality Now. Ending male guardianship in Saudi Arabia. Retrieved from 2021.

8. Ferrant, G. and Kolev, A. Does gender discrimination in social institutions matter for long-term growth? Retrieved from 2016.

9. Human Rights Watch. (2021, May 23). Saudi Arabia: Repression Rages on Despite Release.

10. Khashogji, Z. (2021, October 12). 200 women employed by General Presidency for Affairs of Two Holy Mosques: imam. Arab News.

11. Omran, A. A. (2020, January 21). Saudi women embrace new freedoms as gradual reforms take hold. Retrieved November 4, 2021, from

12. Saudi Arabia: Proposed reforms neglect basic rights. Human Rights Watch. (2021, February 25). Retrieved November 4, 2021, from

13. Tanis, F. (2021, February 10). Saudi Activist Who Led Campaign To Legalize Driving for Women Is Released From Jail. npr.

14. Tyson, L. and Klugman, J. (2017, January 17). Women’s economic empowerment is the smart thing to do. What’s stopping us? World Economic Forum.

15. Weaver, M. and Mahmood, M. (2017, July 8). Saudi police questioned woman accused of wearing ;indecent’ clothing. The Guardian.

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