5 Things You Wouldn't Believe Women Can't Do in Saudi Arabia

Created: 01 December, 2016
Updated: 17 October, 2022
4 min read

For hundreds of years, women around the world have fought for equality, for the right to be recognized as valuable and productive members of society, and for the opportunity to grow and be independent without needing a male figure by their side.

In America, we saw the legal fight begin with the right to vote. Women have continued to fight to gain equal rights. In the last decade, we have seen the fight focus on ending violence against women and empowering young girls to believe they can fill the same roles as boys do.

Women have broken a myriad of glass ceilings. They’ve become entrepreneurs, doctors, engineers, CEOs, and even heads of nations and international organizations. It’s the 21st Century and many assume that women around the world enjoy the benefits of the three waves of feminism, that societies recognize the equality between men and women.

However, this is not true. While many countries brag about having reached a relative level of equality, the U.S. failed to elect the first women president, and instead chose a leader rejected by many women. Most Latin American countries have extremely high numbers of violence against women and there’s still a number of nations that forbid women to do things that you probably wouldn’t believe.

Let’s take Saudi Arabia for example, a country that has been in the news over oil production and prices. This Arab country ranks eleventh among the richest countries in the world, according to Global Finance, but denies 40% of its population some of the most basic activities:

1. Driving

On December 1, Saudi Prince Walid bin Talal published a statement on his personal website titled, “It is High Time that Saudi Women Started Driving Their Cars.” Yes, you read that right; women are forbidden to get a driver's license and drive on their own. They depend on “foreign chauffeurs,” which, according to the Prince, comes at a high cost for Saudi families. Maybe women should be allowed to drive so families can save money. No matter the reason, this would be a big step forward for the Arab nation.

2. Compete freely in sports  

London Olympic Games 2012 was the first major sporting event that saw a Saudi woman representing her country. Doing sports in public is highly frowned upon and the women who decided to participate in Olympic competition where labeled as “prostitutes” and forced to have a male escort through the competition. Even so, two brave women participated while wearing the hijab to comply with the “Sharia” (Islamic law). We might see a big change in regards to the Olympics with Vision 2030, a long-term modernization plan led by Prince Mohammed, the heir to the throne, that encourages a more healthy society, along with Princess Nora University’s recent decision to authorize sports sessions for women.

3. Enter a cemetery

Even if they lose a close family member, a husband, father or child, women are not allowed to visit cemeteries. This applies not only to Saudi women, but to all women visiting the Arab country. Maureen Dowd highlights this fact in her Vanity Fair article, when she was denied visiting Eve’s cemetery while traveling to the Saudi nation.

4. Open a bank account

While in most countries you only need the proper documents to open a bank account, Saudi women need the permission of a man, and his presence, in order to be able to open a bank account of their own. This can be a big impediment for women who are trying to build a business on their own and not depend on men for financial sustainability.

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5. Try on clothes while shopping

The Islamic Law is very strict regarding what a woman can wear in public. Saudi women must be completely covered in public and can only show their hands and eyes. A failure to do so can result in a public - and what can be considered a barbaric - punishment. Even while shopping, women cannot remove their robes to try on clothes. Some argue it is because they would not feel comfortable being exposed in public, but even female tourists are discouraged from going into changing rooms.

The strong “church and state” tie that prevails in most Arab countries has slowed their feminist movements. Despite the many restrictions that women still face, Saudi women ran for office for the first time at the end of 2015 and the Vision 2030 plan foresees an improvement in gender equality. Maybe next time we visit Saudi Arabia, we’ll see women driving to the bank, opening their own bank accounts, while little girls compete on the soccer field and dream of representing their country with pride.

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