At the invitation of the Government, I visited Saudi Arabia from 4 to 13 February 2008. During the course of my visit, which included Riyadh, Buridah, Jeddah and Dammam, I met with government officials, the head of the Shura Council and representatives of various segments of the society, including academia, human rights organizations, family protection centres, women’s groups, victims of violence, and women at the central prison in Riyad. I also met with representatives of the diplomatic community, including the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the European Union, and the UN country team.
At the outset, I would like to express my appreciation for the cooperation and assistance extended to me by the Government of Saudi Arabia, particularly, the Human Rights Commission which was in charge of coordinating my visit.
I will submit a full report with my findings and recommendations to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Today, I would like to share my preliminary observations with respect to some priority areas relating to my specific mandate.
The voices, aspirations and demands of Saudi women are as diverse and multiple as is their life experiences. Among the Saudi women I met there were those who have expressed contentment and satisfaction with their lives. Others have raised concerns of serious levels of discriminatory practices against women that compromise their rights and dignity as full human beings and undermine the true values of their society. And still others shared with me the domestic abuse they systematically encounter with little prospects for redress. I also met foreign women married to Saudi nationals and migrant domestic workers who face additional vulnerabilities.
This diversity is reflective of the prevailing constraints and opportunities available for women. In the past years, a number of positive developments have taken place in women’s status. In this regard, the most noteworthy has been in the area of women’s access to education, which has resulted in significant improvements in the literacy rates for women in a relatively short period of time. Women are enjoying free and close to full access to primary, secondary and tertiary education, where the ratio of girls attending school is equal to or higher than that of boys. In higher education, although women are still excluded from some fields, they are increasingly admitted to new fields of study, such as law, with the first students graduating this year.
However, the progress in women’s education has not been accompanied by a comparable increase in their labour force participation. In the public sector, with the exception of opportunities in the health, education and social fields, women lack access to employment in ministries such as justice, interior, and others which are considered by some to be incompatible with the “nature” of women. Women are particularly excluded from decision making positions. There are for instance no women members of the Cabinet, the Majlis el Shura, or of the Board of the newly established Human Rights Commission. The private sector, on the other hand, appears to offer women potential for greater autonomous space for self actualization, though the percentage of women working in this sector is still very low.
The constraints to women’s labour force participation seem to be mainly associated with the policy of sex segregation at the work-place. According to some professional women and officials, this prevents women from participating in the full range of activities and opportunities of the work environment and results in duplication of tasks as well as human and financial resources. Others argue that it is the creation of private sections for women in public space that enables their participation.
Whatever the preferred modality may be, the infrastructure for women’s equal participation in all government institutions and private businesses needs to be set in place and women’s participation in decision making processes needs to be ensured.
A most encouraging development perhaps is the demystification of the taboo around violence against women in recent years. The issue is increasingly occupying the public discourse, particularly through the media reports and academic research. A number of initiatives have already been undertaken by the State, such as the establishment of the National Programme for Family Safety within the National Guard Health Affairs, Social Protection Centres under the Ministry of Social Affairs, and there are also plans to establish Family Protection Centres within hospitals across the Kingdom. These initiatives offer awareness raising, referral and recording and care and protection for victims of violence, including access to shelters.
Discussions to establish an independent national body to coordinate all work with respect to violence against women are encouraging. This could pave the way for the creation of a national machinery for the advancement of women to maintain a holistic approach to the protection and promotion of the overall status of women, including prevention of violence.
Notwithstanding the significance of these developments, the lack of women’s autonomy and economic independence, practices surrounding divorce and child custody, the absence of a law criminalizing violence against women and inconsistencies in the application of laws and procedures continue to prevent many women from escaping abusive environments. In this regard, the lack of written laws governing private life constitutes a major obstacle to women’s access to justice. Coupled with inadequate monitoring of judicial practice by relevant authorities, this allows for discretionary ruling in courts. The case of the forcible divorce of Fatima and Mansour Al-Timani highlights the contradictions and uncertainty in which those who interact with the judicial system can find themselves.
Furthermore, such a situation also permits arbitrary actions towards women that maintain control over them in public and private life. For instance, many of my interlocutors, including government officials, have referred to the misconceptions and ambiguities with respect to the way the system of male guardianship is implemented in the country, thereby severely limiting women’s freedom of movement and exercise of their legal capacity, including in relation to marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, property ownership and decision-making in family matters, education and employment.
Another issue brought to my attention by many interlocutors refers to the behaviour of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, popularly known as Hay-a. These law enforcers are responsible for maintaining morality in public places. Although they are required acting in concert with the police and under certain limitations with respect to arrest and detention of people, they reportedly often act independently and are accountable only to the governor. As a result, the hay-a are said to be responsible for serious human rights abuses in harassing, threatening and arresting women who “deviate from accepted norms”. A telling example occurred during my visit. According to the Saudi press, a business woman from Jeddah was arrested while having coffee with her male colleague in a public place; she was subjected to humiliating and illegal treatment before she was released the following day.
The newly adopted judicial reforms programme, which foresees among other things the establishment of family courts, together with the draft domestic violence act, are promising initiatives in addressing some of the shortcomings highlighted above. The Ministry of Justice has also informed me that a directorate for women within this Ministry will be created to coordinate and support the work of family courts. Additional reforms in the law enforcement area, including those pertaining to accountability, would considerably enhance women’s security and access to justice.
Last but not least I would like to draw attention to the situation of migrant domestic workers who are placed in extremely vulnerable conditions by their sending and recruiting agencies. Without sufficient monitoring mechanisms they are left to the mercy of their sponsors, often with no knowledge of any rights they may have in their host country. While many of these women benefit from the opportunities made available to them, a number of them face hard working conditions, are denied their salaries and may find themselves subject to multiple forms of violence.
The future of the status of women in Saudi Arabia is a central debate among women themselves and it has become a subject of attention in public discourse, including the National Dialogue, which aims to construct social cohesion through consensus. With respect to developing an effective strategy to combat violence against women, the movement has started but much remains to be done, including:
• a legal framework based on international human rights standards (which would include inter alia a law criminalising violence against woman, a family law on marriage, divorce and minimum age for marriage); • the establishment of robust and independent institutions, including a national machinery for women with prerogatives to intervene in cases of violence against women and coordinate governmental actions in this regard; • positive action policies and plans towards women’s empowerment through effective participation in all spheres of society including decision making and leadership; and • training and awareness-raising measures aimed at law enforcement officials, the judiciary, health-care providers, social workers, community leaders and the general public, to increase the understanding that all forms of violence against women are not only grave violations of fundamental rights but are also totally incompatible with the values cherished by the Muslim society.
In concluding, I would like to emphasize that the need to address women’s rights will grow increasingly urgent as the voices of women in Saudi society are heard and their societal contributions felt. Women of Saudi Arabia, in full respect of their societal values, appear ready to embark on a new stage of engagement in contributing to the advancement of their society and that of the coming generations of women and men. Supporting them on their endeavour requires vision, courage, leadership and a firm commitment from the highest levels of the state and the involvement of all sectors of government in consultation with civil society actors.