June 23, 2004 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 183

A Saudi National Dialogue on Women's Rights and Obligations

June 23, 2004 | By Aluma Dankowitz*
Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 183

In mid-June 2004, the King Abd Al-Aziz Center for National Dialogue in Saudi Arabia held its third conference in a series intended "to build and enhance a culture of dialogue in the Saudi society." The conference focused on the issue of "women's rights and obligations and the educational correlation" and in its meetings men and women were separated and the deliberations were carried via closed-circuit television, despite the objections of a number of participants. Thirty five men and an equal number of women representing conservative and liberal elements in Saudi society participated in the three-day meetings. During the proceedings, expert studies on social, psychological, educational, political, economic, and religious law (Shari'a) issues were presented. The conference ended in a conservative victory. The following is a summary of the conference:

The Recommendations – Conservative Positions Reaffirmed

The recommendations issued by the conference, and endorsed by Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah Bin Abd Al-Aziz, stated that the meetings were meant to study the rights and obligations of women out of concern for the missing balance between women's rights and their obligations. The document emphasized that the conference deliberations were in concert with the teachings of Islam and that there was a difference between the goals, substance, and impetus that were set for this meeting and those espoused by Western organizations that are interested in the same issue. The conferees stated that "the best way to reforms" is to adhere to the Koran and the Sunna, to preserve the country's unity, and to amalgamate these values with useful innovations that do not defy the Koran and the Sunna.

The document stressed that the women's role within the family is indeed their "basic duty," but at the same time mentioned that Islam asserted the women's right to work and earn a living. Women have the right to get married, to be mothers, and to have a home in which they can perform their "natural roles." The document clarified that, according to Islam, the relations between genders should be based on cooperation and harmony and not on domination and conflict.

The conference called for the establishment of a national organization to deal with issues of family and women and to coordinate between governmental and civil institutions; It called for the establishment of domestic courts of law and for expanding women's sections within the existing courts; It recommended the formulation of a national manifest detailing the rights and obligations of women according to Islamic laws as well as their roles in the family and society; It also called for the establishment of a committee of experts in Shari'a and social studies to separate traditions and customs from the actual religious laws (so that only the religious laws remain in effect). [1]

Few recommendations dealt with educational and employment issues. They called to examine whether the current educational curricula define women's rights and obligation according to the Shari'a; To develop a curriculum for girls "congruent with the nature of women," that will "prepare them for their role in life"; To develop new educational endeavors, both academic and vocational, that will serve the needs of society and befit the female nature at the same time; To establish universities for women and to adopt new teaching techniques such as distant and extended learning; To provide women with work opportunities to ensure a respectful life for the family and to help achieve the [country's] developmental goals and advance women's opportunities in telecommuting jobs.

Other recommendations called to examine the status of public transportation that are suitable for women and to devise ways that will allow women to move easily when needed; To expand women's participation in expressing their opinions and their participation in public endeavors based on the dictates of the Shari'a and in accordance with the social, economic and educational developments in society; To establish cultural and social centers for the development of women's potentials and to council them in women's and family issues; To enhance the rules of the Sahri'a which prohibit violence against women, and to urge the media to focus on women's problems. [2]

On Prohibiting Women's Driving: 'We Are Infinitely Respectful and Proud of Women, Therefore We are Adamant about Protecting Them from Harm'

Heated discussion ensued around the debate of a woman's right to drive. Sheikh Abdallah Bin Muni', member of the senior council of jurisprudents in Saudi Arabia, who participated in the national dialogue said: "If the women who are demanding the right to drive were like the women who are participating in this conference, we would not have hesitated to allow them to do that. But in fact, we are dealing with teenage boys and girls who are facing [social] challenges. Currently, a young woman who goes shopping in the market is not immune to harassment, and this will be even worse if she is able to drive and takes her car, there might be deviation [from rules of morality]. We are in fact opposed to any ploy that might end up hurting women, because they are our daughters, sisters, wives and each one of them is like a precious gem. We are infinitely respectful and proud of them, therefore we are adamant about protecting them from harm."

Sheikh Bin Muni' rejected the argument that if women drive there will be no need to employ foreign drivers and said that the experience in the Gulf countries, which allowed women to drive, prove that there was still a need for foreign drivers and that in every household there is an average of three to four drivers. [3] It is noteworthy that despite the fact that the women's right to drive was discussed in the conference it was not mentioned at all in the final recommendations.

Saudi Conservatives: 'Saudi Women Got More than They Deserve'

The second day of deliberations was tumultuous as a result of the harsh criticism that Dr. Muhammad Abdallah Al-'Arifi, an affiliate of the extreme Islamic trend, expressed against Saudi women. Al-'Arifi maintained that "some of the female school teachers do not wear appropriate and modest dress." He added that "some women who drove cars in Riyadh in 1991 and [as punishment] were suspended from their jobs at the universities for a year or two, were reinstated and are now teaching at the universities, but there is still a concern that they might instill their ideas in their students minds… How can we entrust our daughters to them?" asked Al-'Arifi, and went on to mention that there were men who lost their jobs and never regained them, referring to men fired by the Saudi government for their religious radicalism.

Alluding to some of the Saudi women who participated in the conference, Al-'Arifi said that some of them "who had been educated in western countries have been trying since their return to impose on others the western ideas that influenced them." He went on to argue that a woman's work is in her home and in educating her children and commented that "female flight attendants were used, during certain periods, for other purposes." [4]

Dr. Wafaa Al-Rashid addressed the conference following Al-'Arifi and, unable to contain herself, burst in tears. She expressed deep resentment to his "unjustified" remarks about women and claimed that "as a mother she is worried about her children because of the prevalent radical thinking." [5]

Hussein Shubakshi, who writes in the London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, criticized Al-'Arifi's opinions and explained: "[Al-'Arifi] said that 'Saudi women got more than they deserve,' but he did not elaborate on what they deserved. Were it not for the numerous cases of discrimination and problems facing the Saudi women – as many people acknowledge – would there be a need to convene a conference to deal with these issues? [Al-'Arifi] argued that 'some of the female teachers are not intellectually apt and are not a role model for their students in the way they dress'. However, he did not mention that there are also men who are not intellectually apt and are not a role model in their appearance."

Shubakshi went on to criticize Al-'Arifi who said that 'among the women there are those who received their degrees from Western universities and returned to their country to convey Western ideas to Saudi women…' forgetting that there are many Saudi men who graduated from local universities and institutions and brought upon us harmful ideas and virulent opinions, sawed destruction and devastation in society… and caused terror and bloodshed that is tearing us to pieces today. Later, [Al-'Arifi] faulted the state for reinstating several female academicians who were suspended for several years because they drove cars. Driving a car is an issue that most jurisprudents in Islamic countries agreed that it is permitted and faultless, but [Al-'Arifi] considers it a violation worthy of punishment…" [6]

Liberal Columnist: 'Nothing but Talk'

Referring to Al-'Arifi's criticism, columnist Raid Qusti wrote in the Saudi daily Arab News: "I find it absurd that some of these conservatives, or ultraconservatives, were even invited to participate to a forum discussing women's rights when they think that women wearing abayas on their shoulders are corrupt or sinful. I really do not think that such people have much to contribute to improving the status of women in our country. But I do know that many ultraconservatives like him are poisoning the minds of boys and girls in our schools and in our universities with their shallow thinking. In fact, these are the people who are responsible for finalizing our textbooks in the Ministry of Education."

Qusti concluded his column in a pessimistic view regarding the ability of the Saudi society to solve its own differences and problems:

"When we are not denying, we are blaming. And when we are not blaming we are accusing others of wrongdoing. And when we're not doing that, we plunge our heads in the sand and or are silent about the problems, hoping that the Almighty will work a miracle and make our problems disappear.

"Many Saudis I spoke to were not so optimistic about the forum even before it started. They said after all the media blitz it would end up like the two before it. Like many of the other things we talked about in the past, the recommendations it made would be added to the long list of demands that are on the waiting list: Political, economical and social reforms, Saudizing taxi services, changes of our school textbooks, the creation of civil institutions, the acceptance of others and putting an end to the hegemony of one viewpoint, removing red tape, and so forth.

"The minister of Islamic affairs said last year that religious speech in the Kingdom must change. But his ministry has not done much to stop imams preaching hatred in our mosques.

"Nothing but talk.

"No wonder the world isn't taking us seriously. We are not taking ourselves seriously." [7]

The Media Coverage: 'Blackout' and 'Uproar'

The conference deliberations were held in closed sessions and reporters were not allowed to cover the proceedings. Dr. Nura Al-'Udwan, professor at King Saud University and a member of the planning committee, explained that the "female participants wanted the sessions to be closed because of the sensitivity of the issues. They voted and decided to keep the media out."

In response to that, Nahid Bashtah wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh: "Like many women, I awaited the recommendations of the national dialogue, but I read them in the newspaper as if I was reading any other statement of an ordinary conference, not a conference that we hoped would discuss women's issues and would recommend ways to implement the decisions, not just publish them in an undefined manner … before the third national dialogue I was expecting … that the conference secretariat would be interested, for instance, to launch a media campaign in advance of the meetings that would somewhat correct the one-sided viewpoints that are prevalent in society towards women, but are not sanctioned by Islam. But in reality, there was a total media blackout prior to the meeting and a media uproar during the meetings…" [8]

Saudi Progressives: 'It is Time for Women to Stand Up and Demand All the Rights Granted to Them by the Creator'

The conference ended with a victory to the conservatives. The Islamic progressive elements expressed their qualms about the recommendations and faulted them for not dealing with central issues concerning women. For example, the recommendations ignored women's rights to move within Saudi Arabia, and to live in apartments or hotels without male escorts. They did not deal with the inability of women to participate alongside men in many activities. The conference critics maintained also that the recommendations were stated in generalizations that could be interpreted in various ways and that nothing was decided regarding their implementation. According to Dr. Ibrahim Bin Abdallah Al-Dawish, professor of Islamic studies, the conference recommendations did not live up to the aspired level: "I was hoping that the recommendations would set up ways for their implementation by the authorities, but it seems that this dialogue was intended for promoting the culture of dialogue and not decision-making." [9]

Columnist Zaki Al-Milad wrote in the Saudi daily Okazthat the conference recommendations were characterized by the same "extreme caution that dominates the overall approach to women's problems." They underscored indisputable principles, such as the role of women in family and society, and the legitimate right of women to get married and emphasized that relationships between the genders are based on acceptance and harmony according to Islamic Shari'a. [10]

Dr. Omar Baq'ar argued that the "national dialogue" failed to realize the goals set by the Saudi leadership to formulate a united approach that allows Saudi women to play an active role in society. He attributed the failure to the existence of "a radical traditional approach that insists on the domination of religious points of view on every aspect of women's lives and to see them only in roles at home, educating the children and serving their husbands." [11]

However, the discussion in itself and the participation of women engendered positive responses. 'Abd Al-Muhsin Hilal wrote in the Saudi daily Okaz that he thought the conference was an historic event "not in its substance, but because it dared to discuss a painful issue that was exploited by many people who did not understand it properly… The result is that half of society is paralyzed, and [women's role] has been confined to home by false pretexts that have nothing to do with Islam. It is time that the woman speaks out for herself without the patronage of a man… It is time that the woman stands up and speaks out just like the woman who Allah heard talking to His Messenger [Prophet Muhammad] and stands up just like the woman who stood up to [Caliph] 'Umar [Bin Al-Khattab] when she thought that he dispossessed women of the rights that Allah bestowed upon them. It is time for women to stand up and demand all the rights that the Creator granted them, and no mortal can take away from them…" [12]

'Only Conservatives Can Affect Change'

In a column titled "A men's dialogue about women", the former editor of the London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed wrote that the national dialogue that took place between conservatives and reformists mirror the status quo in Saudi society:

"The dialogue showed that the foreigners were wrong in assuming that the restrictions imposed on women were governmental decisions. It proved to everyone that they were indeed rooted social restrictions and that the laws were merely an interpretation to an existing realty… I realize that it is difficult for a foreigner to understand existing traditions, especially those that predetermine every thing for women, such as sitting in the back seat of a car, but this is a way of life that has nothing to do with the world outside the borders [of Saudi Arabia], although it has become today the subject of discussion between two generations. And even though I believe that change will come some day, I do not know how long this way of life will persist, because ever since the 1960's there were predictions that it would not stay for long in its present form. A day will come when the restrictions imposed on women will become history and will be recounted as memories…"

Al-Rashed found willingness among the conservatives to change some of their positions and expressed his opinion that only they are capable of affecting an enduring change that will be acceptable to the public. He maintained that "despite the superstition about the conservatives who oppose any change and lack of openness due to ignorance, they demonstrated willingness to clarify their positions without conceit… They explained their positions with full respect to the other side… the wariness that they presented was 'logical' not dogmatic and could be re-examined and even changed… they are the ones who can affect change. They, and not the government, can determine the fate of the nation in issues that have been awaiting resolution for half a century. It is better if the crisis is resolved by them and based on their positions, so that others accept it too…" [13]

*Aluma Dankowitz is Director of MEMRI’s Reform Project


[1] This is an important recommendation due to the fact that part of the women's discrimination is based on traditions and customs and not on the Shari'a laws.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 15, 2004.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 14, 2004.

[4] Al-Hayat (London), June 14, 2004.

[5] Al-Hayat (London), June 14, 2004.

[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, June 15, 2004.

[7] Arab News (Saudi Arabia), June 16, 2004.

[8] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 17, 2004.

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 14, 2004; Al-Hayat (London), June 15, 2004.

[10] Okaz (Saudi Arabia), June 16, 2004.

[11] Al-Hayat (London), June 14, 2004.

[12] Okaz (Saudi Arabia), June 16, 2004.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 16, 2004.

Share this Report: