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The Secular Atheist

Women die because of religion in Saudi Arabia

6 January 2017

"I got into an accident in a taxi, and the ambulance refused to take me to the hospital until my male guardian arrived. I had lost a lot of blood. If he didn't arrive that minute, I would've been dead by now," tweeted Rulaa, 19-year-old Saudi Arabian female teenager in October 2016.

In December 2015, women were allowed to vote and stand in elections in Saudi Arabia for first time in the modern history of the kingdom. The religious establishment opposed the move with the Grand Mufti describing it as "opening the door to evil", while women's rights campaigners said it heralded a turning point for women's rights in this tightly regulated absolute monarchy. In the same year, a gender gap index by the World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia as among the worst countries to be a woman, placing it at 134 out of 145 nations. Did the election signal an improvement in the status of women in Saudi Arabia, or was it window dressing?

The country is run by the Al Saud family with the support of the Wahhabi muslim sect, which is deeply conservative, and gave birth to the likes of Al Qaeda and ISIS. The authority of the ruling family relies on the continued support of the Wahhabi muslim clerics who helped them conquer local tribes and create the kingdom in 1902 in return for enforcing Wahhabi islam. The leaders of the sect are opposed to any change in the rights of women, so even though a small number of the ruling members of the ruling family have suggested expanding women's rights, no action has been taken to date for fear of what their reaction might be.

Under the late King Abdullah, it looked like women's rights were inching forward, but under King Salman who took over in January 2015, the trend has been reversed. King Salman fired members of the government in favour of more rights for women and filled the roles with hardliners. He also got rid of the only women in government, the minister of education.

Municipalities have no real power - 978 women stood for election and 20 were elected out of a possible total of 2,100. The enforcement of restrictions has made it difficult for the women to fulfil their roles in some areas. So, for example, some councils will not allow women to attend meetings where men are present which means not being able to attend any council meetings.

Saudi Arabia is the only country worldwide where women are expressly forbidden from driving supported by arguments from it is unIslamic to it will reduce the fertility of women. During the election campaign, women candidates and voters were totally reliant on their male relatives to get to events and polling stations, men who were often unwilling or unable to oblige. Many women did not vote simply because they could not get to the women only polling stations.

Despite campaigns to permit women to drive like the spoof song 'No women, no drive', it looks unlikely that any change is imminent. "Saudi Arabia isn't ready to end the ban on women driving", Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said, reinforced by the Grand Mufti who said allowing women to drive was "a dangerous matter that should not be permitted". Women campaigning for the right to drive have landed in jail under charges of terrorism.

The guardianship system in Saudi Arabia means that women are in effect, legal minors for their entire lives. Saudi women required the permission of their male guardian to vote or stand in the election of 2015. Many guardians simply refused permission. Unsurprisingly, only about 130,000 women registered to vote, compared to 1.4 million men.

As Saudi Arabia is strictly segregated on gender grounds, women candidates were not permitted to talk to possible male supporters directly. All communication with men had to take place through a male spokesman appointed by their guardian. Sex segregation is strictly monitored by the religious police, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, in all work and public spaces other than in hospitals. Unlawful mixing between sexes leads to the immediate arrest of the violators and criminal charges. The commission is brutal in exacting punishment which is consistently more severe for women.

The combination of sex segregation and male guardianship has grave consequences for the health and safety of women. In 2002, when a girl's school caught fire, 15 girls died because the religious police would not let them escape the burning school as they did have the right religious clothing to appear in public. One witness said he saw three policemen "beating young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya".

Officials are entitled to require guardian's permission for a woman to be "admitted, discharged, or receive treatment." For example, in July 2015, after a car chase left the driver dead and his wife and daughter in critical condition, King Fahd Hospital in Baha postponed amputating the wife's hand because she had no male legal guardian to authorize the procedure.

Very recently, Saudi Arabia banned domestic violence, widespread in the country but this is a meaningless law as women require the permission of their guardian to file a complaint, even when the complaint is against the guardian. So a wife abused by her husband, needs his permission to file a complaint against him for the abuse!! Even, on the rare occasions when a prosecution takes place, the consequences for men are extremely lenient. For example, in May, Jeddah's Summary Court convicted a man for physically abusing his wife to the point of hospitalization, and sentenced him to learning by heart five parts of the Quran and 100 sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, instructing that she must return to him once recovered.

Human Rights Watch released a video captioned "Even when they abuse their wives, Saudi men still act as guardians over them #TogetherTo EndMaleGuardianship", which has been shared more than 2,300 times and gained more 8,400 'likes' in 12 hours. It shows a woman being beaten by her husband before he orders her to leave. She goes to a shelter and is told to reconcile with her husband. It proceeds to show her husband signing a sheet of paper before pulling the crying woman out of the shelter and beating her in the home again.

It is not just about voting which hardly seems like the turning point for women's rights some claimed. Women remain powerless in Saudi Arabia to decide how to live their lives, and to oppose abuse and oppression. Education reinforces roles that match "women's nature and future role as wives and mothers" and employment law requires that "women shall work in all fields suitable to their nature" (article 149) in adherence with Sharia. Men still have power over women because of the guardianship system which requires that every adult Saudi woman, regardless of her economic or social status, must obtain permission from her male guardian to work, travel, study, seek medical treatment, enrol children at school, and marry. When women are cruelly treated, men are almost immune from prosecution, or on the rare occasions when it happens, suffer only minor consequences. Being a woman in Saudi Arabia must be demeaning and unpleasant.

Note: many of the sources used in this article are below in the section titled News and Articles on Women in Saudi Arabia

About me

I describe myself as a secular atheist hence the name of the site. As an atheist, I am active in my opposition to religious privilege and intolerance especially when it comes to religion trying to enforce its values on all society such as the denial of equal rights for the LGBQT community and placing limits on women's reproductive rights.

I sometimes describe myself as a secular humanist because humanism matches my beliefs most closely. As a humanist, I am totally committed to human rights as defined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. I am proud to have been a member of the British Humanist Society for many years now.

Lastly, I am a parent, a husband, a teacher, a mentor, a friend, and a Bridge enthusiast (although not very good at it). I enjoy sharing my thoughts and ideas, and this site is one of my outlets to this end.

Thank you for visiting, and thank you for reading.

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News and Articles on Women in Saudi Arabia

x Saudi Arabian video on women's rights goes viral

BBC | 5 January 2017 | Saudi Arabia |

A video of a pop song that highlights the oppression of women in Saudi has amassed millions of views on social media.

The video entitled 'Hwages', loosely translated in English as 'Concerns', shows women in Saudi Arabia skateboarding, playing basketball and dancing. It features women in full Islamic dress taking part in various activities, singing lyrics that include: 'If only God would rid us of men'.

x When a Saudi woman daring not to wear a hijab leads to calls for her beheading, maybe it's time the UK paid attention

Independent | 2 December 2016 | Saudi Arabia |

Our Government has put business, arms and trades deals before human rights. It isn't ethical and it isn't fair

Today it was reported that a Saudi women who posted a picture of herself on social media in public without wearing a hijab faced outrage, including calls for her execution. One man declared "Kill her and throw her corpse to the dogs".

x 'Thousands of Saudis sign petition to end male guardianship of women

Guardian | 26 September 2016 | Saudi Arabia |

Thousands of Saudis have signed an online petition calling for the government to abolish the country's guardianship system, which prevents women from engaging in fundamental tasks without the permission of a male relative.

x 'I Live in a Lie': Saudi Women Speak Up

The New York Times | 28 October 2016 | Saudi Arabia |

"I got into an accident once in a taxi, and the ambulance refused to take me to the hospital until my male guardian arrived. I had lost a lot of blood. If he didn't arrive that minute, I would've been dead by now." - RULAA, 19

x Saudi male-guardianship laws treat women as second-class citizens

Guardian | 7 October 2016 | Saudi Arabia |

The male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia is not just law: it is a set of bylaws and state-sanctioned discriminatory policies and practices that restrict a woman's ability to have a wide range of choices unless permitted by her male guardian - typically a father, husband, brother or even a son. In practice, it means women are unrecognised by the state as full legal adults.

x The cartoon that shows how ridiculous Saudi laws are for women

Independent | 18 July 2016 | Saudi Arabia |

Thousands of people have circulated a short animation video designed to show the restrictions that Saudi Arabia's male guardianship system places on women.

The video, published on Facebook by Human Rights Watch, depicts a Saudi woman being forced to reconcile with her abusive husband.

x One step forward, one step back

Economist | 12 May 2016 | Saudi Arabia |

When Hind Al-Otaibi went to the Riyadh Personal Status Court to have her father struck out as her guardian, the judges seemed sympathetic. Her father had raped and bruised her, Ms Otaibi, a teenager at the time, told the court. He refused to let her travel abroad, even to her mother's funeral, and when she escaped from home had persuaded social services to send her back. The judges determined that her father, an imam from the Saudi interior of Nejd, remained her legal guardian.

x Prince Says Saudi Arabia Not Yet Ready to Allow Women to Drive

Bloomberg | 26 April 2016 | Saudi Arabia |

Saudi Arabia isn't ready to end the world's only ban on women driving, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said, arguing it's not just a matter of ending strictures imposed by the kingdom's austere form of Islam.

"The community is not convinced about women driving" and sees negative consequences if it's allowed, the prince said on Monday after outlining a plan to reduce the kingdom's reliance on oil.

x Women Haven't Really Won in Saudi Arabia - Yet

Time | 15 December 2015 | Saudi Arabia |

Saturday's election was a symbolic victory, but it could offer hope to the next generation.

Saudi Arabia's historic elections Saturday, in which women voted and won political positions for the first time, could demonstrate an opening in the traditionally repressive kingdom that women will now widen.

x Saudi women cast first votes in local elections

Telegraph | 12 December 2015 | Saudi Arabia |

Saudi Arabia's women were allowed to vote in local elections for the first time on Saturday, a small step towards easing sex discrimination in the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom.

Even so, they were forced to address election rallies from behind partitions and female voters were not allowed to drive to polling stations.

x Women in Saudi Arabia are caught in a system of gender apartheid

DW | 30 December 2013 | Saudi Arabia |

I will never forget the words of my father when he turned down an offer to work at our Yemeni embassy in Saudi Arabia in the mid-80s. He simply said "I have a daughter!"

His words came back to me this October 26, when more than 60 Saudi women's activists got behind the wheels of their cars protesting against a ban on women driving in the kingdom.

x The story behind No Woman, No Drive

BBC News | 28 December 2013 | Saudi Arabia |

This weekend a handful of women in Saudi Arabia defied a ban on driving and took to the wheel - many posted videos of themselves on YouTube - but what got the biggest response on social media was a video made by a Saudi comedian.

Less than two days after it was posted, No Woman, No Drive has had more than three million views on YouTube. It's the most popular YouTube video in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, and has been a big hit around the world.

x 15 girls die as zealots 'drive them into blaze'

Telegraph | 15 March 2002 | Saudi Arabia |

Saudi Arabia's religious police are reported to have forced schoolgirls back into a blazing building because they were not wearing Islamic headscarves and black robes.

Saudi newspapers said scuffles broke out between firemen and religious police who tried to keep the girls inside a burning school in Mecca. Fifteen girls were killed as they stampeded to escape from the blazing building in the Muslim holy city.

x Saudi police 'stopped' fire rescue

BBC News | 15 March 2002 | Saudi Arabia |

Saudi Arabia's religious police stopped schoolgirls from leaving a blazing building because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress, according to Saudi newspapers.

In a rare criticism of the kingdom's powerful "mutaween" police, the Saudi media has accused them of hindering attempts to save 15 girls who died in the fire on Monday.

News and Articles on Religion, Atheism and Secularism

x Saudi Arabia to 'inoculate' children against Westernisation, atheism and liberalism

Independent | 16 December 2016 | Saudi Arabia |

Saudi Arabia is launching a programme to "inoculate" children against Westernisation, atheism, liberalism and secularism. They were listed as threats to "ideological security", ahead of the danger from extremist groups including Isis and al-Qaeda and sectarianism.

x German-Iraqi boy, 12, 'tried to bomb Christmas market'

BBC News | 16 December 2016 | Germany |

A 12-year-old German-Iraqi boy tried to blow up a Christmas market in the town of Ludwigshafen. He left a rucksack with explosives which failed to detonate in November, and another by the town hall a few days later.

x MP says Government's silence over Louis Smith heralds "unwritten blasphemy law"

National Secular Society | 15 December 2016 | UK |

Conservative MP Charles Walker has sharply criticised the media for unleashing "a torrent of venom" against Louis Smith, and said the Government was "nowhere to be seen" when it should have been defending free expression.

x German leader 'insults' Saudi Arabia by refusing to wear hijab

New York Post | 14 December 2016 | Saudi |

Germany's defense minister refused to wear a traditional head covering during her visit with a Saudi Arabian prince, arguing that women have as much right as men do to wear whatever they choose.

x Europeans greatly overestimate Muslim population, poll shows

Guardian | 13 December 2016 | Europe |

Germany's defense minister refused to wear a traditional head covering during her visit with a Saudi Arabian prince, arguing that women have as much right as men do to wear whatever they choose.

x Indonesia blasphemy case: Emotional scenes as Ahok trial begins

BBC News | 13 December 2016 | Indonesia |

There were emotional scenes in court on the first day of the blasphemy trial of Jakarta's governor, a Christian of Chinese descent.

x Muslim convert 'broke Asbo by preaching Sharia law in London'

Evening Standard | 13 December 2016 | UK |

A Muslim convert is accused of breaking an Asbo by touring London preaching Sharia Law to members of the public, a court heard.

x Cairo bombing: Cairo Coptic Christian complex hit

BBC News | 11 December 2016 | Egypt |

A bomb explosion in the Coptic Christian cathedral complex in the Egyptian capital Cairo has killed at least 25 people, officials say. Dozens of others were injured in the blast in a chapel adjoining St Mark's cathedral during a Sunday service.

x Religious leaders push for Muslim alternative to Peppa Pig

BBC News | 8 December 2016 | Australia |

Islamic leaders in Australia have backed a campaign to produce an alternative to Peppa Pig set in a "predominantly Muslim town". The Australian National Imams Council (ANIC) has encouraged parents to raise funds for TV shows that support Islamic values.

x Doctors in Denmark want to stop circumcision for under-18s

Independent | 7 December 2016 | Denmark |

Boys should not be circumcised until they are old enough to choose for themselves, doctors in Denmark have said. The Danish Medical Association said it believed circumcision should be "an informed, personal choice" that young men make for themselves.

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