Saudi Arabia Says Women Are Much Freer under Mohammed bin Salman. They’re Not.

By Scott Weiner, Policy Analyst, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Saudi Arabia’s approach to women’s rights prioritizes form over function. The changes it has implemented are not insignificant, but they fail to address a legal system premised on the treatment of women as second-class citizens. That system of religious guardianship treats women as legal minors for life. Those women who peacefully dissent from this system are thrown in prison, severely mistreated, and charged with national security violations. The Saudi government likens women who flee these guardianship laws to ISIS fighters, and it calls feminism a form of extremism. As the only independent U.S. government body monitoring international religious freedom, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) new country update calls on Congress and the Trump administration to press Saudi Arabia to end the religious guardianship system and grant women legal equality.

Saudi Arabia has taken some recent steps to ensure that women will enjoy some of the new benefits of Saudi citizenship that the ambitious Saudi Vision 2030 plan promises. In June 2019, Saudi Arabia announced women would be allowed to drive; in August, it amended its laws to allow women over the age of 21 to travel abroad without a guardian’s permission and to report births, marriages and divorces.

The updating and changes in the laws are important and represent a positive trend toward legal equality for women. However, they fail to address the deep structural obstacles that women face in Saudi Arabia. Religious guardianship laws are the most important of these obstacles, as they allow the state to impose strict limits on women’s freedoms regardless of their own religion or personal beliefs. For example, laws allow parents to file complaints against their children for ’uquq (disobedience) with the Ministry of Justice. They allow the government to invest state resources to locate women and return them to their guardians, even if the women are fleeing domestic abuse. Women who flee their guardians can also be charged with taghayyub (absence from the home). In some cases, these women are found, captured, and sent to a State Oversight Home, living in conditions similar to prison, where the authorities record their menstrual cycles and subject them to flogging. Survivors of these homes report sexual harassment and high rates of self-harm.

A Saudi Government online flyer that reads: “Feminism is an extremist idea”

Saudi Arabia uses gender-based violence to punish activists, like Loujain al-Hathloul, who peacefully protest these guardianship laws. The government uses sexuality as a weapon and violates the strong norms of modesty present in Saudi society. One female detainee was photographed naked and shown the photos by male interrogators. In another reported case, two female detainees were forced to kiss each other in the presence of a male interrogator. Some were kissed and groped while handcuffed by male interrogators; two were told they would be killed, dissolved, and flushed down a toilet.

Saudi Arabia has continued to treat women’s freedom as a privilege, rather than as a right guaranteed under international law. A January 2019 presentation by the Saudi General Department for Counter-Extremism at Qasim University featured a slide reading, “Feminism: A Spiritual and Intellectual Kidnapping.” In February 2019, the Department posted a video comparing women who fled Saudi Arabia and its guardianship laws to ISIS fighters. In November, it released social media clips calling feminism a form of extremism, though it eventually took down one of those clips following public pressure.

The United States government is turning a blind eye to these egregious violations in Saudi Arabia. While the State Department concurs with USCIRF’s assessment that Saudi Arabia is a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act, and thus subject to sanctions under U.S. law, it has consistently issued Saudi Arabia a waiver from these sanctions. In doing so, the U.S. government is giving a free pass to a government that uses religion as a pretense to persecute, abuse, harass, and assault women. The United States’ collective silence on this systematic violence and persecution undermines America’s credibility as a global defender of freedom. Both Congress and the Trump administration should emphatically call for Saudi Arabia to dismantle the guardianship system and raise the systematic mistreatment of women on religious pretenses in meetings with high-level Saudi officials. If Saudi Arabia refuses to address this structural obstacle to change, the U.S. must then be willing to make credible commitments to the people of Saudi Arabia, who are seeking nothing more than their freedoms guaranteed under international law.

Scott Weiner is a policy analyst with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He holds a Ph.D in political science from George Washington University. The views expressed here are the author’s own.