This upcoming week from October 20th to the 22nd, Saudi Arabia will be virtually hosting the Women 20 Summit (W20), a conference that is hosted annually to address gender issues in state’s policies and political agendas. Concerns over Saudi Arabia’s track-record surrounding women’s rights and the rights of other identity groups have been raised in response to the upcoming summit. The summit, originally sponsored by the G20 countries in 2015, is meant to provide a space where women’s organizations, non-governmental organizations, female entrepreneurs, and other members of the international society can come together to engage in a dialogue. 

The G20, or the Group of 20, is composed mainly of Western nations but includes emerging economic powerhouses like China, India, and Brazil. It is primarily an economic coalition of states that describes its main goal as facilitating global economic stability but engages in other endeavors for greater global development. Saudi Arabia currently has a prominent role in the G20 as King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was given the role of president or chairman of the organization for the year of 2020, thus Saudi Arabia will be responsible for the W20. The trend of including discussions on women’s rights and their position in politics has grown globally over the last few decades, so it is only natural that the G20 would try to incorporate a mechanism for addressing gender inequality. However, it is a new development in this trend to see Saudi Arabia taking the central role in these conversations. 

What is Saudi Arabia’s track record on women’s rights?

Saudi Arabia is known for having traditional and conservative views on identity issues, due to a combination of religious, cultural, political, and economic factors. Saudi women live under an informal system of male guardianship which dictates that the men in a woman’s life, whether it be her father, her husband, or another male family member, are in control of her basic rights. This system of guardianship is based on a rigid and literal interpretation of Sharia law, one which many Islamic scholars and legal experts both inside and outside Saudi Arabia have argued is a misleading interpretation and a corruption of the actual text of the Quran. In 2000, the Saudi government actually ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women which would in theory undermine the guardianship system, however, the oppression of women has still continued. 

Many Saudi women still need permission to enroll in school, open a bank account, start a business, or travel alone. In terms of legal participation, a woman’s witness testimony carries half the weight of a man’s, and while women are allowed to practice law, there are no female judges which ultimately undermines their entire position in the legal system. Women are also greatly restricted when it comes to their own physical bodies, both in terms of health and freedom of expression: women are required to wear modest clothing to “protect” themselves from harassment and women need their guardian’s permission for many health procedures. 

Has Saudi Arabia made progress in addressing women’s rights?

In the past decade or so, Saudi Arabia has signaled its willingness to address women’s rights issues by loosening some laws and introducing new programs. In 2013, women were required to carry ID cards, which the majority of women welcomed as it gave them access to more government services and gave them symbolic recognition as independent members of Saudi society. In 2018, women were finally allowed to drive cars, after previously having to be driven everywhere by male family members or taxis. In 2019, changes were made to the Travel Documents Law so as to allow “anyone holding Saudi nationality” to obtain a passport, which meant that any woman over the age of twenty-one could receive a passport. 

Is it all an act?

While it might seem like the Saudi state is taking a more progressive approach, many people have criticized Saudi Arabia’s new shift towards promoting women’s rights as being performative and disingenuous. Instead of actually prioritizing structural and cultural changes within the nation, many believe that the Saudi government is using women’s rights as a liberal talking point to ensure it continues to receive foreign investment from countries like the United States and Canada. While it is difficult to definitively determine whether this is the case or if the Saudi government is genuinely trying to address gender biases, it does appear as though they are only taking these measures to improve their image. The informal system of guardianship remains systemically intact and women still face a great degree of difficulty when voting in municipal elections, finding jobs, or attending higher education. Most concerningly, women’s rights activists and other human rights activists are targeted by the state and imprisoned for challenging the government. Those arrested over the past years, including activist Loujain al-Hathloul, have reported being detained and held on obscure charges, being put in solitary confinement, or being barred from having a fair trial. Others have also reported witnessing or being subjected to torture or sexual abuse.

It is incredibly important to note that the subjugation of women is not an inherent aspect of Islam. In the Quran and other religious texts, women were actually given considerable rights and freedoms and were afforded certain protections that would have been very progressive in pre-modern times. Equating the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia to a fundamental aspect of Islam is an extreme oversimplification and does not properly take into account the unique cultural context. Historically, Muslim women were consulted and were invited to engage in religious discussions, however, in the modern Saudi state, women are barred from interpreting the Quran or other religious texts. Thus it is not the function of Islam to oppress women: it is the fact men that have been given positions of political power and can use that power to interpret the religious texts in a way that reinforces existing hierarchies. 

With all this in mind, the W20 this week will certainly prove to be an interesting event and hopefully will initiate greater conversations about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. It would be unrealistic to expect a major shift in Saudi Arabia’s position solely from this summit, however, the summit could provide a forum for women’s rights activists to draw attention to the treatment of all Saudi women and the imprisonment of other activists. Hopefully, participants in the summit and women’s rights activists can use this platform to demand accountability from the Saudi government and draw attention to the greater issue by appealing to the international community.

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Esme Graziani

Esmé currently lives in San Francisco but recently graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and Middle East Studies. She is passionate about political...

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