Women in Saudi Arabia – Is There Real Reform?

Sep 24th, 2014 | By | Category: Weekly Washington Updates

Andrew Harrod examines Katherine Zoepf’s “Shopgirls” presentation exclusively for the Religious Freedom Coalition.

A Women’s Storefront Window on Rights, Religion, and Reform in Saudi Arabia

(Washington, DC) “You cannot assume the same starting point” for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia as Western countries, journalist Katherine Zoepf obviously understated in a September 17 presentation of her research in the doctrinaire Muslim kingdom.  Zoepf’s discussion of the “not just window dressing” reform in the kingdom’s strict “gender segregation” allowing women retail jobs, though, raises important questions about Islamic “extremism” in Saudi Arabia and beyond.

Zoepf’s Washington, DC, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting (Pulitzer Center) address centered on her December 2013 New Yorker article “Shopgirls.”  Zoepf described therein how Saudi King Abdullah decreed in June 2011 a ban on male lingerie and cosmetic shop workers, leading the way towards other women retail positions.  Though “not…immediately evident,” Zoepf wrote, a “women’s revolution has begun in Saudi Arabia.”

A “male guardian—usually a father or husband” controlling “permission to study, to travel, and to marry” makes Saudi women “effectively…legal minors.”  A Saudi female doctor mentioned by Zoepf at Pulitzer Center, for example, enjoyed travel to places like Paris for medical conferences with her liberal husband’s generous permission, but after his death came under a conservative son’s strictures.  Another woman under the guardianship of her brother was raising her son as a liberal future replacement.

A “devout Saudi man avoids even mentioning the names of his wife and daughters in public” and they never met the man’s friends at home in one of the world’s “most patriarchal societies,” Zoepf wrote.  “You wouldn’t imagine that they live in the same homes,” Zoepf at Pulitzer Center said of husbands and wives’ segregated lives.  Separating as adolescents after childhood, male cousins might never see their female cousins’ faces again unless they are among the some 50% of first and second cousins who marry.  The kingdom meanwhile expends “vast resources” creating what Zoepf described at Pulitzer Center as an “entire second set of everything” such as female-only shopping malls and travel agencies.


A Saudi female in a Supermarket check-out counter. the sign says “families only” because a male customer may not directly speak to her. A UK Citizen was beaten by religious police this year for speaking to a female clerk at a store.

Saudi women lack a “public identity,” Zoepf argued at Pulitzer Center, as they must wear in public the abaya body and head covering, although the niqab face covering is optional.  Saleswomen, though, often wear niqabs to avoid harassment from conservative customers or the “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice” religious police (Hai’a or “committee” for short).  In lingerie stores, “Shopgirls” noted, “most customers remain fully covered even while being fitted.”

A public service advertisement with four Saudi girls covered in black abayas shown by Zoepf emphasized this covering.  Three of the girls had red “X”s under their images, as their abayas revealed slight protrusions caused by hair tied with ribbons underneath.  They “will not see heaven, nor will they smell its perfume,” Zoepf translated the advertisement’s Arabic caption.  Only the fourth without any such ornamentation had a green check mark.

An unveiled, stylishly-dressed Saudi woman in the Pulitzer Center  audience indicated Saudi progressivism’s limits.  This law student in America came from Jeddah, described by “Shopgirls” as “Saudi Arabia’s most liberal city.”  Moderating influences, Zoepf explained at Pulitzer Center, came to the port city throughout history in the form of annual pilgrims on hajj to Mecca from outside of Islam’s orthodox heartland.

The woman discussed how her home city featured colored abayas and mixed-gender wedding ceremonies.  “If you have a great father,” a woman can enjoy significant freedom, she observed, for example with a permanent guardian travel permission stamped in a passport.  Zoepf also showed a storefront advertisement with a pixelated woman’s face, indicating Muslim norms against human images, while noting that Jeddah advertisements often had unedited human images.

“Very brief…rather formal” interactions with Saudi men, meanwhile, characterized Zoepf’s Saudi Arabia stay, she recounted, such that that they did not want to eat before her.  A “weird kid-glove treatment” and “extreme chivalry” also appeared when eight waiting men allowed her to take an elevator alone rather than ride with a woman.  A “very weird role” as well was Zoepf’s position as a foreign female reporter in Saudi Arabia, like an “honorary man.”

Not women’s rights, but “shame, which has great resonance in Saudi society,” Zoepf wrote, gave Saudi Arabia saleswomen.  Hai’a objections against ikhtilat, or public gender mixing, closed three lingerie shops in Jeddah during an abortive 2005 saleswomen experiment by Labor Minister Ghazi al-Gosaibi.  Yet numerous negative experiences with male lingerie shop personnel (often Southeast Asian migrants, Zoepf noted at Pulitzer Center) made “badly fitting underwear…purchased in haste…a long-standing joke among Saudi women.”  Thus a feminist women’s college professor in Jeddah successfully mobilized male and female opposition in a boycott to such male involvement in female undergarment purchases.

Abdullah’s “feminization policy” continues to be controversial, called a “crime” by Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, in December 2011.  After Gosaibi died of cancer, other clerics told his successor that they would pray for his similar demise absent a policy reversal.  Conservative writer Abdullah Mohammad al-Dawood also urged his nearly 100,000 Twitter followers to harass female supermarket cashiers, something justified against immorality according to a hadith.

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The saleswomen themselves often have a “level of anxiety and shame” about their jobs that is “hard to explain” in a society often expecting women to be home, Zoepf at Pulitzer Center  noted.  Often not being able to afford the products they sold, many saleswomen emphasized to Zoepf that they worked only out of economic necessity.  These saleswomen are often a “little bit on the outside of Saudi society,” such as women divorced against their will.  Yet with “virtually no jobs for women without a college degree or special skills,” many women interviewed for “Shopgirls” had previously suffered “depression, isolation, and boredom.”   In another act of emancipation, working divorcees also sometimes discovered from each other that they have a Saudi legal right to see their children.

“Feminization” was Abdullah’s “response to the Arab Spring,” many Saudis have joked, Zoepf noted at Pulitzer Center .  Yet “there has been a lot of change” under Abdullah who is “justly” seen as a reformer in his context.  Announced in 2011, for example, Saudi women may vote and run in 2015 municipal elections, although Zoepf concedes that Saudi municipal councils do not have much power.  Saudi women may also now ride bikes in parks for recreational purposes.  The Saudi law student also noted that the Saudi legal profession opened to women in 2013.  Hai’a members also stopped carrying canes in 2007, “Shopgirls” noted, and may no longer publicly strike offenders, although Hai’a continues to exercise wide, even abusive, discretion in humiliating people and closing businesses.

Irrespective of reforms, the Saudi “guardianship system” including its ban on female driving appears as a protective “form of love” to many Saudi women according to survey data, Zoepf observed.  The “majority of Saudis…like it this way,” concurred the Saudi law student.  Another audience member who had spent time in the kingdom referenced “white feminist” views distorting understanding of Saudi society.

“It’s like a cocoon, like you are invisible,” audience member Jan Zastrow, who once visited Saudi Arabia, similarly said approvingly of her experience wearing the abaya.  While Saudi women “do not think of themselves as capable,” given their upbringing according to Zoepf, Zastrow disagreed, saying that in Saudi homes women “rule the roost.”  “This is the line everyone wants to tell you,” Zoepf skeptically answered.

A “strong bias” towards “melodrama” skewed American reporting on Saudi Arabia, Zoepf criticized.  Yet what Zoepf herself reported from a kingdom that must legitimate its every policy in the name of Islam is provocative enough.  Even if the 42% of Saudi women who now attend college noted by “Shopgirls” desire greater freedom, they will face intense theological scrutiny.  After all, Muslims accused of blasphemy on women’s rights or other issues face death.  American-educated Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, for example, grew up in Washington, DC, as the daughter of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the kingdom’s ambassador to the United States for 22 years.  She is now chief executive for the posh Harvey Nichols Saudi Arabia subsidiary’s holding company and seeks Hai’a accommodation for her luxury store policies.

Prince Bandar, known in the past for being a not-so-pious hard drinking bon vivant, is meanwhile indicative of Saudi Islamic zeal in the international realm.  Despite Western pressures to support “moderate” forces opposing Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, Bandar stands accused of having directed Saudi state support to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadists.  As the “literalist Saudi version of Islam,” notes British writer Patrick Cockburn, is “not much different from those of al-Qa’ida or other Salafi jihadist groups,” Saudi state and private ISIS support with money and fighters is not surprising.  Why would Saudis, after aggressively upholding domestically popularly indoctrinated (and perhaps uncritically accepted by foreigners like Zastrow?) Islamic views, refrain from brutal violence abroad against those seen as Islam’s open enemies?  Those who piously proclaim their starting assumption that ISIS has no connection to Islam would do well to consider Zoepf’s work.

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