The murderous brutality of the Saudi regime is rightly condemned for the killing and dismembering of courageous dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the merciless Saudi war in Yemen. Many observers correctly call for the U.S. to reform or even end its alliance with the Saudi government unless there is accountability and justice for Khashoggi’s murder and an end to the Yemen conflict that is causing one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes. Yet the Saudi crime with the greatest number of victims — the state-sanctioned repression of more than 15 million Saudi women and girls — is almost never included in the list of Saudi human rights atrocities that must end. All too often, the suffocation of women’s rights is treated as an issue that may be important enough to mention but not important enough to be stopped.
How bad is it? Saudi women are not free to go where they want to go and do what they want to do without permission from a male. Saudi male “guardianship” laws for women require that every woman have a male guardian, and that women get permission from men (or boys, because male children can be guardians) for everyday activities — college, work, travel, marriage. A divorced or widowed woman can be ruled by a son who can refuse to let her remarry.
The U.S. State Department concluded that the Saudi system caused “violence and official discrimination against women” and that courts are “occasionally upholding a guardian’s right to obedience from his female dependents.” A woman can go to jail for disobeying a man, and a man can report a woman if she ventures out without permission. This stifles political dissent as well as women’s freedom — a women’s rights activist was imprisoned in 2017 for three months for leaving her house without her male guardian’s approval.
There are no women judges in Saudi Arabia, of course, and Saudi law requires judges to give women’s testimony half the weight of men. The 22 percent of Saudi women who work is among the world’s lowest (placing the country just above war-torn nations like Syria and Yemen). That so few Saudi women work is unsurprising given how much permission they need for daily activities.
Saudi sexism leads to physical violence, too. Human rights groups and the U.S. State Department agree that Saudi women are inadequately protected against sexual and other violence. A United Nations report blamed violence against women on male guardianship and gender segregation, which limit women’s ability to escape or report violence.
Saudi women are equal to men in one terrible way — the regime will kill them or throw them in prison when they have the courage to speak out for human rights. Israa al-Ghomghan, a female activist, is sentenced to beheading for protesting in marches and on social media. Many Saudi women who led the successful campaign for the right to drive—and who call for more sweeping reform to give women full equality – are themselves jailed.
Here is how some victims of Saudi apartheid described it to the New York Times:
“My experience as a female is very sad. I cannot go out of the house unless my older brother gives me permission, as if I were a prisoner.”
“I am subjected to violence and beatings and am denied the most basic rights, including the ability to go to a hospital. I have been insulted and cursed in ways that are anathema to Islam.
“I have been denied the opportunity to study or work. I am forced to wear the black abaya and to cover my face and eyes. I am forced to remain inside the house. I am prevented from going out even to buy my essential needs.”
“Only in this room I am allowed to do what I want to do . . . My father owns me.”
“I don’t remember the last time that I saw the light of the outside world. I am giving myself one year. If life doesn’t change, there is no solution except suicide, as many other girls have done.”
To call this gender apartheid is too polite. The Saudi system is misogynist apartheid. Yet there is an inexplicable silence about Saudi suffocation of women’s rights. For example, over two days in the Washington Post, a U.S. Senator, an academic foreign policy expert, and a former senior Bush administration official rightly demanded accountability and action against the Saudi government for human rights atrocities — without a single mention of its state-sanctioned second-class citizenship for women. A prominent foreign policy commentator, while alluding to the arrests of women’s activists in a link, failed to include in his list of Saudi wrongs the nationwide discrimination and violence against women that the activists were protesting. To be fair, a Washington Post op-ed included discrimination against women among the reasons for ending American deference to Saudi human rights violations.
The Trump administration will not demand equal rights for women in Saudi Arabia. Trump considers arms trade with the Saudi regime a higher priority than keeping the regime from killing people or suffocating their lives. Awful as this is, Trump is not the first American to value Saudi money and oil above human life and moral principle.
Leaving Trump aside, other Americans — Congress, human rights groups, and citizens — should demand that the Saudi regime honor women’s rights and aspirations. This would benefit Saudi society as much as the women who live in it by tapping their enormous talent and potential.
Some might favor restraint in challenging Saudi repression of women by noting that some Saudi women prefer restrictions on rights and dress. Others may characterize demands for reform and gender equality as colonial-style imposition of Western norms that risk destabilizing a society in which restrictions on women reflect deeply held religious and cultural traditions.
But there is nothing about guaranteeing equality that would stop women from dressing conservatively, living restrictively, or even following the direction of men, if some women choose to do so to express their religious or social preferences. There are women wearing the hijab in the trendiest neighborhoods in London and others who live very conservative lives all over the world. Equal rights would simply afford women the freedom to make other choices.
As to cultural-relativist arguments to delay or stop reform completely, these arguments have been made about racial equality in South Africa, democracy in South America, even capitalism in China. Indeed, opponents of civil rights for African Americans criticized the movement for going too fast. All of these countries managed societal transition that was broad and deep, and so would the Saudis if they had allies at home and abroad in promoting women’s rights.
More than that, it is the right thing to do. Women and girls should not live in a state-constructed prison. The brutal suppression of half the human beings in Saudi Arabia is not a peripheral issue to be put on the back burner. Human rights violations on this scale aren’t usually compartmentalized. It is not surprising that a regime that denies basic human rights to half its citizens will also kill dissident journalists or innocent civilians caught in the crosshairs of its wars.
In the fleeting time when there was hope that Khashoggi had not been killed, one expert rightly wrote, “It is impossible to look away from Khashoggi’s disappearance.” But for decades it has been all too possible for America to look away from the Saudi regime’s marginalization and abuse of women.
Not everyone ignores the plight of Saudi women. One observer in America spoke the truth plainly: “Women today should have the same rights as men.” The writer was Jamal Khashoggi. In September 2017, he wrote, “I can speak when so many cannot.” Now that his brave voice has been horrifically silenced, the rest of us should speak for him and for the rights of Saudi women.