Saudi Women are Fighting for Their Freedom – and Their Hard-Won Victories are Growing

Dalia Yashar, one of the first Saudi female students in training to become commercial pilot, pictured on July 15, 2018. Her future passengers will include solo women travelers, too.  Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed

Dalia Yashar, one of the first Saudi female students in training to become commercial pilot, pictured on July 15, 2018. Her future passengers will include solo women travelers, too. Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed

Saudi women will soon be allowed to obtain passports and travel without the permission of a male relative.

This new regulation, announced by the government in early August, eases one of the most limiting aspects of the Gulf country’s “guardianship system,” which puts men in charge of their female relatives.

Saudi women will also be allowed to register marriages, divorces and births and to receive official family documents without their guardian’s approval, but they must still get permission from male chaperones to marry, leave prison and move out from a domestic abuse shelter.

Social pressure likely means some Saudi women still won’t travel without family permission. Though it became legal for women to drive in 2018, familial disapproval has kept many women off the roads.

Saudi Arabia enforces a strict interpretation of Islamic law that sees gender separation and male authority as vital to preserving a moral Islamic society. But women are much more than victims in this patriarchal regime.

As a researcher who studies women’s movements across the Middle East, I have learned that Saudi women – like any large population – are a diverse group with different opinions and experiences. They attend school, work as journalists and airline pilotsscuba dive, meet friends for coffee – and, increasingly, defy the law to expand women’s rights.

The fight for equality

Saudi women’s new freedoms are part of broader reform efforts led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to modernize the conservative Muslim country of 33 million and to alleviate international human rights concerns.

But these legal advances have come coupled with the repression of the Saudi female activists who have pushed to reform the guardianship system. Women fought for decades for the right to drive cars, and before the ban was lifted last year several activists were arrested for very publicly getting behind the wheel. Many remain in prison.

Women celebrate the end of Saudi Arabia’s ban on women drivers, July 24, 2018.  Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed

Women celebrate the end of Saudi Arabia’s ban on women drivers, July 24, 2018. Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed

Saudi women have also campaigned to abolish the guardianship system, circulating online petitions with the hashtag #IAmMyOwnGuardian and holding workshops to educate women on guardianship laws. A woman-created app called “Know Your Rights” gives women information on their legal rights.

Saudi women even make the most of laws forbidding gender mixing in public places, I’ve found.

In the private, women-only areas of malls, parks, restaurants, schools and coffee shops, women feel free to express their independence. They remove their abayas – the long black robes all Saudi women must wear – and talk openly, without male oversight.

Some women have even called for more gender-segregated places to give women more breathing room in this patriarchal society.

Women’s education

Saudi women have been attending university since the 1970s, but their educational opportunities have grown markedly over the past 15 years.

A government-funded study abroad program launched in 2005 sends tens of thousands of young Saudi women to the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and many other countries each year.

Saudi Arabia’s first women’s college, the Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University, was founded in 2010. With room for about 60,000 undergraduate students – the world’s largest all-women’s campus – the school aims to give female students better access to male-dominated fields like medicine, computer science, management and pharmacology.

In 2015, Saudi women’s undergraduate enrollment rates actually surpassed those of men. Women comprise 52% of all university students in the kingdom, according to the Saudi Ministry of Education.

Working women

Employment rates have not followed these educational trends.

Only 22% of Saudi women worked outside the home in 2016, compared to 78% of the male population, according to the World Bank.

Still, women can – and do – work in nearly all of the same fields as men, with the exception of “dangerous” fields like construction or garbage collection. Since Islamic law permits women to own and manage their own property, ever more Saudi women see employment as the path to financial independence.

There are female Saudi journalists, like Weam Al Dakheel, who in 2016 became the first female TV presenter to host morning news in Saudi Arabia.

There are female Saudi lawyers, like Nasreen Alissa, one of only a few women to run a law firm in Saudi Arabia and the inventor of the “Know Your Rights” app.

And just over half of all teachers in Saudi Arabia are female, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Saudi women also make up almost half the kingdom’s retail workers.

Saudi journalists question then-Secretary of State John Kerry at a press conference in Riyadh in 2016.  AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Saudi journalists question then-Secretary of State John Kerry at a press conference in Riyadh in 2016. AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

The Saudi government has set a goal of a 30% female labor participation rate by 2030. Though gender-mixing is often prohibited in the workplace, women are a key component of the kingdom’s ongoing “Saudization” efforts to replace non-Saudi workers with a local workforce.

Political engagement

Saudi Arabia began slowly expanding the rights of women after the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks, part of a rebranding effort to counter negative views of the country as a breeding ground for terrorism and religious fundamentalism.

Women have made particular progress in politics in recent years. In a series of firsts, women were appointed as deputy education minister in 2009, advisers to the king in 2010 and ambassador to the United States in 2019.

In 2015, Saudi women were given the right to vote and to run in municipal elections. Nearly 1,000 women campaigned for seats on local councils, comprising 14% of the total candidate pool.

Saudi Arabia’s first crop of female candidates struggled to convince voters – just 9% of whom are women – to elect them. Today they hold just 20 of Saudi Arabia’s 2,000 local council seats.

Two prominent women’s rights activists, Loujain Hathloul and Nassima Al-Sadah, were disqualified from running in 2015 for unspecified reasons.

In patriarchal Saudi Arabia, the women elected face significant barriers to performing even the limited duties of their office, which include overseeing garbage collection and issuing building permits. Some must attend council meetings via video conference to avoid being in the same room as men.

These challenges have not stopped Saudi women from working – both within and outside of the political system – to change their country.

“I was never but a good citizen that loved her country, a loving daughter and a hardworking student and a devoted worker,” wrote the Saudi activist Nouf Abdulaziz in a letter posted online after her arrest in June 2018.

Even facing jail, she “wished the best for” Saudi Arabia.

ALAINNA LILOIA is a Graduate Associate, Ph.D. Student at the University of Arizona.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION

#MeToo Movement Reaches South Korea, Shaking the Foundations of a Society in Flux

In a deeply patriarchal culture, feminist activists face constant setbacks and scrutiny.

Park Geun-hye meeting with former President Barack Obama in 2014. Republic of Korea/Jeon Han. CC BY-SA 2.0

Park Geun-hye meeting with former President Barack Obama in 2014. Republic of Korea/Jeon Han. CC BY-SA 2.0

In 2017, TIME Magazine named “The Silence Breakers” as its Person of the Year, marking the influence of the #MeToo movement and commending the women who have shattered decades of complacency regarding sexual harassment. Yet despite the movement’s place at the forefront of the American cultural zeitgeist, the effects of #MeToo are far from confined to the United States. On the other side of the globe, in South Korea, generations of women—long oppressed by the sexism that has proliferated in Korean society—are now uniting to push back against gender discrimination and question the influence of the patriarchy.

A glance at the numbers reveals the gender bias deeply embedded in Korean culture. On average, women earn 37 percent less than their male colleagues, creating the most severe gap among the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Countrywide, women account for only 11 percent of managerial positions and 2.1 percent of corporate boards, in comparison to the OECD averages of 31 percent and 19 percent, respectively. In its glass ceiling index, The Economist ranks South Korea as the worst developed nation for working women.

The problem is a self-perpetuating one, as female role models in positions of power are few. In 2013, Park Geun-hye became Korea’s first female president—but far from sharing in her victory, women’s rights organizations strongly opposed her candidacy, recalling her father’s 18-year dictatorship. Only two of Park’s 19 ministers were women, and the aspects of her platform that did promote women’s rights and access were not much more progressive than those of the male presidential hopefuls she defeated. More important, Park lost all credibility when she became embroiled in an extortion scandal in 2016. In April 2018, she was found guilty of 16 out of 18 charges relating to abuse of power and coercion and sentenced to 24 years in jail.

February of that year witnessed an incident that encapsulated Korea’s suspicious attitude towards women’s liberation: Singer Son Naeun of the all-female group Apink was attacked for posting a photo on Instagram of her holding a phone case with the words “Girls can do anything.” In a culture that responds to even such minor displays of feminism with scorn and shame, sexual abuse toward women often goes unnoticed, and survivors who try to make their claims public are met with mockery.

However, despite these hostile attitudes, #MeToo principles in South Korea are finally gaining traction, and Korean women’s accounts of sexual abuse are beginning to garner at least a modicum of respect in the public eye. In January 2018, attorney Seo Ji-hyun—who had experienced years of sexual harassment at the hands of Ahn Tae-geun, the former chief of the Seoul prosecutors’ office—came forward with her allegations on the nightly news, precipitating Ahn’s two-year prison sentence for abuse of power. (He claimed not to remember the incident.) The next month, Choi Young-mi published a poem effectively accusing 85-year-old poet Ko Un of molestation, coerced sex, and harassment. The piece, titled “Monster,” has since gone viral.

The ensuing wave of sexual abuse allegations reached into the hundreds, with presidential hopeful Ahn Hee-jung and award-winning movie director Kim Ki-duk among the accused. Throughout 2018, both traditional and social media networks grew increasingly saturated with talk of societal change, and issues of gender discrimination entered public discourse. Online profiles owned by male and female Koreans alike sported the English-language hashtags #MeToo and #WithYou.

In March 2018, the burgeoning movement reached a watershed moment: a marathon protest in downtown Seoul, during which nearly 200 women publicly shared their stories of sexual harassment for 2018 consecutive minutes. In May, 15,000 people turned out to Daehangno in central Seoul to attend a rally for government accountability on sex crimes; a follow-up in July brought around 60,000, and continuing protests have earned a nickname that translates as “Uncomfortable Courage.”

Gwanghwamun Gate, at the edge of the plaza where almost 200 women shared their experiences with sexual assault as part of a massive protest. Dickson Phua. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Gwanghwamun Gate, at the edge of the plaza where almost 200 women shared their experiences with sexual assault as part of a massive protest. Dickson Phua. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Younger generations have been at the forefront of the movement, and some have pushed for change specifically within the culture of schools. Using the hashtag #SchoolMeToo, students at more than 65 Korean schools have come forward with allegations of verbal and physical sexual abuse by teachers. Their stories led to several criminal investigations, and in February of this year, a former middle school teacher was sentenced to a year and a half in prison on charges of repeated assault. In response to the multiple allegations, hundreds of female students turned out for a march in downtown Seoul, which culminated in a gathering outside the presidential palace to protest inadequate responses to abuse.

The Blue House, Seoul’s presidential residence, where students gathered to protest the lack of response to sexual abuse. Julio Martínez. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Blue House, Seoul’s presidential residence, where students gathered to protest the lack of response to sexual abuse. Julio Martínez. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On the legislative side, there are signs of incremental change. As of September 2018, maintenance staff in Seoul are now required to check public restrooms daily for hidden cameras, which are often used to secretly record footage of women that is later sold to porn websites. The administration of President Moon Jae-in, who was elected following Park’s impeachment, has announced extensions to the statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases, and a process for anonymous reporting of sexual assault crimes.

Despite progress, activists continue to face persecution. For instance, in the city of Gwangju, where 11 teachers and the principal at one school were criminally charged with sexual abuse, a newspaper editorial questioned the value of the movement and accused students of undermining teachers’ authority. Progressive politicians, such as Shin Ji-ye, a 28-year-old Green Party leader who ran for mayor on a feminist platform last June and finished impressively in fourth, may usher in more substantial shifts. For now, isolated policy decisions and grassroots uprisings are chipping away at the inequities entrenched in Korean ways of life—and #MeToo, from one side of the world to another, continues to stake a claim against centuries of injustice.







TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.

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