Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from Caroline Montagu


This submission deals with developments in women’s rights since 1998 when I first started working with Saudi women.

Today women’s rights, presence, employment and activities are centre stage for Saudi Arabia. But in 1998 it was hard to get a group of women together in any of the three major centres (Jeddah, Riyadh, EP); women did not meet others from across the country as travelling for women was harder; no organizations, networks or internet for women and their concerns existed, except an annual women’s charity conference.

Today the situation is entirely different; there are nine million women and girls; nearly 60% of Saudi graduates are women; their employment is needed in the economy, their voice is heard and they are seen.

I could put in a number of firsts, like a female higher education minister, women on the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce board, a woman chairman of the Jeddah Economic Forum, first newspaper deputy editor in chief and so on.

Women have always been powerful in the Kingdom in the private arena; now they are taking their place in the public sphere.

Many aspects of women’s rights, however, still merit a fundamental upgrade: the mahram (guardian) system, the wakil (power of attorney), family law in many vital areas, divorce, child marriage, to name a few. Women are not treated equally with men, as under Islam they should be.

Traditional accretions in Saudi society have obscured Islam’s message of equality of the sexes and damaged women’s position in society.

1. Women’s rights and reform move forward slowly but inexorably. Saudi Arabia works on consensus, though reform of women’s rights probably does not have a majority national mandate. It can never be stressed enough that Saudi Arabia is a conservative Muslim country; Islam dictates people’s lives, beliefs and activities. It is a rigorous Hanbali interpretation of Islam, not changed much since the eighteenth century of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

2. Reform for women is top down, not a grass roots movement. It started with the government. King Abdullah has been backing reform for women since he was crown prince and his daughter Princess Adilah has been ably promoting women’s rights, especially on domestic violence, cancer charities and the rights of women in business. King Abdullah’s speech of September 2011 opened the Majlis al-Shura and the municipal elections to women. Earlier speeches of the King’s stated women should be at the centre of the economy and he would not “approve the marginalization of women”.

3. At least 60%, if not 70%, of Saudi Arabia is conservative and does not want change. The power of, and adherence to, Islam cannot be overestimated. For every educated liberal woman there are at least two similarly educated conservative women. According to Prince Turki al-Faisal in a Washington speech in early November 2012 the fight is not between the educated and the non-educated in Saudi Arabia; it is between the liberals and the conservatives.

4. Saudi Arabia has representation, not democracy; in theory and traditionally, anyone with a problem can go to the majlis (council) of the governor of their region or to his palace; people can go to their tribal leaders. There are many regional organizations: majalis (councils), regional chapters of trade associations, regional charities, self-help cooperatives exist in the towns and cities. However, the shia 2million, mainly in the Eastern Province, are underrepresented and discriminated against.

5. Civil society in Saudi Arabia emerges through such organizations and provides an arena between government and people. The domestic charitable sector, which is large, spread across the country and diverse, provides one of the best arenas of civil society. The not-for-profit organizations, like Effat University or Dar al-Hekmah University or the Chambers of Commerce, are tools of civil society that need supporting and recognizing.

6. Driving is the ikonic issue; women do not drive in the towns but they drive in the countryside; they have to—teachers, nurses have to get to their work places and their clients; it is accepted and they are not stopped. There are far more important problems for women than driving. Family law (see below) is one. However, since men are wearing ghotras which stop them seeing sideways and women are wearing hejab or niqab, the danger of men and women driving is not so much possible seduction as increases in accidents—were traffic in Jeddah and Riyadh not almost permanently gridlocked.

7. ID cards are now issued for girls from the age of 16 and are mandatory for entrance to further education. The national ID card gives access to a bank account, which gives women financial independence. Since April 2010 women can travel in the GCC with a Saudi Arabian ID card and without a mahram, though with his approval. The Kingdom has many, many businesswomen who are constantly travelling, as business has been one of the preferred professions for women.

8. Shura and municipal elections: King Abdullah’s speech of September 2011 put women at the centre of the country’s development, giving women the right to run and vote in the municipal elections and appointing 35 women to the majlis al-Shura. Women in the shura will lead to full participation of women in society; they will have a responsibility to identify and reject laws and regulations that are incompatible with today’s world, and will use it for women’s needs and issues: pensions, equal pay, maternity leave, on-site nurseries, reasonable working hours and also for the Saudi women who are oppressed and underprivileged. It will allow women to explore and improve the status of women in society but they must be involved in all twelve committees: human rights, education, culture and information, health and social affairs, urban services and public utilities, foreign affairs, security, the economy, industry and finance, not the soft ones. Further, women will not need the consent of a mahram to run or vote in the municipal elections.

9. Judiciary: Reform in the judicial system is very well overdue. From 2012 women lawyers can practice in the courts if they have 3 years’ experience. Male and female lawyers have the same rights and obligations and will face the same penalties for malpractice. However, the question is whether the judges, who hold total authority, will permit it. Some judges have shown antagonism to women in their courts, but the government is likely to come down on such behaviour. There are many family law legal issues for women that need resolving, including abuse of all sorts, domestic violence, instant divorce, child marriage and inheritance.

10. The Shari’ah certainly needs for codification, especially in family law. Precedent does not exist in shari’ah law thus leading to different judgments for the same offence and giving shari’ah judges far too much latitude. For instance in June 2012, when women were driving, Manal al-Sharif in the EP was given a prison sentence while in the Western Region a women driving was sentenced to lashes. Both these judgements were commuted by the King. The 2010 story of the “Qatif girl” is another example of the inequity, if not blind prejudice, of shari’ah judges.

11. Labour: Women are working in a far wider range of jobs and professions than 10 years ago and have access to wider tertiary education. Women are working in underwear shops, after much trouble, and at some supermarket tills in the open, and in banks and ministries. The battleground is between khulwa (two people of different sexes in closed space together) forbidden by Islam, and ikhtilat (interaction between members of the opposite sex). Ikhtilat has recently been accepted by some Saudi shaikhs, not before time, but the conservatism of the country will hold back ikhtilat in the rural and tribal areas. Employment is a major issue and though women are more widely employed than 15 years ago the country is still not benefitting from its educated and dynamic women.

12. Education: Girls are educated through to tertiary education or beyond and as in other countries often have better results than boys. Some 60% of university graduates are women, mostly from Saudi universities but under the King Abdullah scholarship scheme also from foreign colleges. The new mixed KAUST, King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, has men and women mixing together and is intended as a centre of excellence. No carping by conservative shaikhs stands in the way: a shaikh who criticised this ikhtilat was sacked instantly by the King. The new women only Riyadh-based Princess Noura university is going to be turning out eight thousand women graduates a year. The Jeddah-based Effat University now offers a degree in computer engineering—with other universities following suit.

13. Lobbying: the Khadija bint Khuwailid Centre (KBKC), the woman’s section of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI), is a powerful lobby for women in business and for better regulations governing women in the workplace. Led by Dr Basma Omeir, the most effective lobbyist in the Kingdom, and with Princess Adilah as patron, the KBKC has enormously improved the visibility of women and their ability to work in business. The KBKC is the entity working with the Labour Minister to provide better conditions and regulations. The KBKC has pulled in a number of powerful Jeddah business women, among whom is Dr Lama Suleyman, recent chairman of the Jeddah Economic Forum and a member of the JCCI.

14. A call for a ministry of women’s affairs came out of the December 2011 women’s affairs forum. This ministry would lobby for women’s rights and safeguard women’s progress without any cultural, economic or political interference. That women are calling for this is a step forward.

15. Impediments of women’s rights and development: Despite the many achievements of the past decade impediments continue to bar women’s access to full and equal citizenship in Saudi Arabia and to what the west would see as basic human rights:

mahram (guardian), where women can only operate with the consent of their guardian, such as travelling or staying in a hotel, and have no legal independence of the mahram.

wakil (business agent). Until 2011 a woman needed a male wakil to go to government offices for all business dealings and to sign all business papers. The wakil is no longer needed in any Ministry of Commerce dealings but, the Kingdom being poor at implementing regulations, officials are probably still calling for the wakil. One EP businesswoman friend of mine kept as her wakil a semi-illiterate old man who made the coffee for her lawyers and signed the papers when told.

lack of implementation: the systems infrastructure is still poor; implementation is hard to achieve and leads often to a paralysis in the system. Enforcing a judgment in the legal system has always been very difficult but enforcing new regulations that empower women is as hard. Reasons for this range from the top-down nature of Arab business—one man at the top makes the decisions—to the use of “other Arabs” in middle management who fear the risk to their job and security if they take a decision; another is inertia and yet another is fear of women’s empowerment.

countrywide reluctance to support women in leadership positions; not enough women or men trained for leadership roles in Saudi Arabia; this leads to slow implementation of decisions.

16. General comments: Saudi Arabia is not a nation; it is a political entity. The Saudi regions were pulled together by King Ibn Saud in 1920s, either by force or cajoling, but little sense of nationhood exists. Cultural, ethnic, religious and geographical divisions abound: Najdis and Hejazis, hadara and bedu, the shias of Eastern Province, the ismailis of south west. Tribal loyalties and tribes override regions and frontiers, such as the shammar, the ghamdi or the utaibi.

It is a huge country with poor terrain, poverty in the rural areas and the downtown sums; it is hard to get to all the villages and to give basic services, primary health care, housing, education, social benefits. Here the youth movement is providing an example of active volunteering and recognising the obligation in Islam to look the disadvantaged


The importance of Islam to Saudi Arabia cannot be over stressed. Saudi Arabia is a deeply religious and Muslim country; Islam guides people’s lives, thoughts, hopes and behaviour. Saudi Arabia does not want to be a secular state and women do not want to be secular. Women are Muslims and they behave as such. The difficulty for men and women is to be modern and a good Muslim, and to adjust their Islam to the present time.

People from the west need to understand the circuitous nature of Saudi change; the country often seems to behave in a through the looking glass fashion; small measures that look insignificant create major changes, like ID cards. Major issues, like domestic violence or cousin marriage, first appear in a newspaper, then nothing is said except public chat, and then months later a regulation is passed and, lo and behold, every town has to have a woman’s refuge.

The west could have more respect for how far Saudi Arabia has come in the last 30 years with more encouragement for what they are doing, more attempt to understand the Saudi way of doing things, more tolerance for things not going according to western principles.

Implementation of shari’ah needs to change in Saudi Arabia and no excuse exists for imprisonment of people without trial. Western activists regard Saudi Arabia with great suspicion on human rights, but look in India what the higher castes do to the dalits.


CAROLINE MONTAGU, MA (Cantab), MA (London), has been working on the Middle East for over 30 years, principally on Saudi Arabia. She now writes on social and civil reform and women’s issues in the Kingdom, though previously writing on business and the economy. She has also written on the GCC states, Palestine and Afghanistan.

Posts include: Trustee, Saudi British Society, member of the Saudi British Business Council and the ABCC Chairman’s Consultative Committee on the Middle East, honorary member of the Middle East Association, senior adviser Women in Business International, and Research Associate, SOAS’ London Middle East Institute.

21 November 2012

Prepared 19th November 2013