Gender Equality in Saudi Arabia

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Flag of Saudi_Arabia
Population (in Mil.) 28.29
Gross Domestic Product (In USD Billions - WB) 733.96
Sex Ratio (m/f) 1.21
Life Expectancy Ratio (f/m) 1.040540541
Fertility Rate 2.31
Estimated Earned Income (f/m) 0.19
Tertiary Enrolment Ratio (f/m) 36.8
Women in Parliament (in %) 19.9
Human Development Index 57/187
Social Institutions and Gender Index /86
Gender Inequality Index 57/186
Gender Equity Index 144/168
Women’s Economic Opportunity Index 103/128
Global Gender Gap Index /68
More information on variables

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Social Institutions

The modern state of Saudi Arabia came into being in 1932.[1] The country is a monarchy, currently ruled by King Abdullah, who has introduced a modest programme of reform.[2] Saudi Arabia is classed as a high-income country by the World Bank.[3] The economy is heavily reliant on oil.[4] Religion affects all aspects of life in Saudi Arabia. The majority are Sunni Muslim, and Sunni Islam is the official state religion.[5] All Saudi Arabian citizens are required by law to be Muslims, and are governed by very conservative interpretations of Islam.[6] There is a small Shiite minority, who reportedly face discrimination and marginalisation.[7]

Despite recent, modest reforms – for instance allowing women to apply for identity cards in their own right – women in Saudi Arabia continue to face institutionalised discrimination in most areas of life.[8] They have fewer rights than men in family matters, their freedom of movement is severely restricted, they are largely excluded from decision-making processes, and despite increased involvement in education in recent years, their economic opportunities and rights are limited.[9] Women’s actions and choices frequently depend on the permission or wishes of their mahram (i.e. guardian – the husband or closest male relative): this set-up, as well as enforced gender segregation in all areas of public life, ‘pose important obstacles to women’s autonomy, legal capacity as adults, and ability to participate in the full range of activities available in society and in the workplace’, in the words of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, who visited the country in 2008 (hereafter Special Rapporteur).[10] There is however a movement of women and men pressing for progressive change in the Kingdom, particularly in regard to women’s rights within the family and equal civil rights, and indications of increased tolerance of women’s presence and visibility in the public sphere.[11] The 1992 Basic Law of Saudi Arabia does not guarantee gender equality.[12] Article 8 requires that the government be premised on equality in accordance with Sharia law, but under Sharia law, women are considered to be legal minors, under the control of their mahram.[13] Saudi Arabia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2000, but with the general reservation that the kingdom is under no obligation to observe terms of the treaty that contradict Islamic law.[14] Saudi Arabia is ranked in 56th place in the 2011 Human Development Index (HDI) (out of 187 countries), with a value of 0.770.[15] The country’s gender inequality index rating is 0.646 placing 40 it at 135 out of 146 countries.[16] Saudi Arabia is ranked in 131st place in the 2011 Global Gender Gap Index, with a value of 0.5753.[17]

Discriminatory Family Code

Personal status matters are governed by Sharia law, and there is no written personal status or family law.[18] As a result, the interpretation and application of Sharia law is left up to individual judges and the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, and judges have significant discretionary power in deciding cases.[19] As of 2010, it appeared that proposals to create special family law courts were being discussed, to be staffed partly by women advocates (currently, women are barred from practising law).[20] There is no legally defined minimum age for marriage in Saudi Arabia.[21] According to the Special Rapporteur, there have been recent cases of female children being married to much older men, but overall, the number of early marriages has declined significantly.[22] According to data held by the UN, in 2007, 4% of girls aged 15-19 were married divorced or widowed.[23] In 2005, the country’s religious authority banned the practice of forced marriages.[24] The degree to which women are involved in decisions surrounding their own marriages varies between families.[25] Women cannot get married without their mahram’s permission, and the formal marriage contract is actually between the husband-to-be and the mahram of the bride.[26] Marriages between first cousins are reportedly very high (between 40% and 50%, according to a 2005 report).[27] These are not necessarily arranged marriages, but rather may reflect the wishes of the marrying partners.[28] Both men and women must obtain permission from the Ministry of Interior if they wish to marry a non-Saudi citizen.[29] According to Islamic law, polygamy is legal: Muslim men may take as many as four wives, provided that they can support and treat all wives equally.[30] The practice is reportedly on the decline in Saudi Arabia, for both demographic and economic reasons.[31] Saudi family law also discriminates against women in the area of parental authority. Legally, children are under the sole guardianship of their father. In the event of divorce, women are normally granted physical custody of daughters until they reach the age of nine and sons until they reach the age of seven, although fathers retain legal guardianship.[32] Older children are often awarded to the father or the paternal grandparents.[33] Men are able to repudiate (divorce unilaterally) their wives, whereas women are only able to obtain a divorce under certain, restricted circumstances.[34] In practice, it is very difficult for women to obtain a divorce this way, as they must prove the grounds for divorce.[35] In all cases, the husband is required to pay the wife a one-off payment, pre-agreed at the time of the marriage.[36] In addition, a divorce is only considered legal if the wife’s mahram has given his consent. The mahram also has the authority to dissolve marriages that he deems unsuitable.[37] Women do, however, have the right to obtain a ‘khula’ divorce, whereby they sacrifice their dowry and any financial maintenance.[38] Saudi women cannot confer citizenship to children born to a non-Saudi Arabian father.[39] Islamic law provides for detailed and complex calculations of inheritance shares.[40] Women may inherit from their father, mother, husband or children and, under certain conditions, from other family members.[41] However, their share is generally smaller than that to which men are entitled.[42]

Restricted Physical Integrity

There is no written penal code in Saudi Arabia, meaning that as with matters relating to personal status, the interpretation and application of Sharia law is left up to individual judges and the Council of Senior Religious Scholars.[43] This acts as an impediment to women’s access to justice in cases of gender-based violence.[44]

There are no specific laws addressing the issue of violence against women, although as of 2009, it appeared that a draft law was under consideration.[45] Incidents of domestic violence are rarely reported or even talked about publicly; Doumato reports that because of the close association made between women’s behaviour and family honour, women are frightened of talking openly about abuse for fear of damaging their own reputation and their family’s honour.[46] There are no statistics available as to the number of women affected, but prevalence is thought to be high.[47] Police are generally reluctant to intervene, and the Special Rapporteur noted instances where women had been prevented from reporting incidents of domestic violence because police and health care officials erroneously believed that they needed the permission of their mahram to do so (and in many cases, of course, the mahram is the perpetrator).[48] However, in recent years, violence against women has increasingly been accepted as an issue of public concern, and some measures have been taken by the government.[49] This has included the establishment of the National Programme for Family Safety (NPFS), which aims to prevent violence through training, awareness-raising and the provision of services to victims, family protection centres in hospitals, and a national registry of cases of violence against women and children.[50] However, as the Special Rapporteur notes, while these services to provide some assistance to women who are experiencing abuse, they often also try and encourage women to return to their husbands or families, in the interests of upholding family unity.[51]

Rape is not specifically criminalised under Saudi Arabian law.[52] Rape remains a taboo issue which is not discussed openly, and very few cases are reported, as victims fear that they will be judged harshly by society.[53] In one notorious case, a young woman and her male companion who were both gang-raped by a group of men were themselves sentenced to 200 lashes and a six-month prison term, for being alone in the company of a person of the opposite sex who was not a relative.[54]

So-called ‘honour crimes’ occur in Saudi Arabia, typically involving cases in which a woman is punished or even killed by male family members for having brought “shame” on the family honour. It is impossible to ascertain how prevalent they are, In 2009, a law against human trafficking was passed in Saudi Arabia, said by Amnesty International to be ‘a significant problem’.[55] Saudi Arabia remains a destination country for the trafficking of women and children into the country for the purposes of forced prostitution, and in the case of children, forced begging.[56] In addition, a large number of women arrive each year legally to work as domestic servants, but then find themselves living and working in virtual slave-like conditions.[57] Migrant women may be subjected to physical and sexual violence, as well as poor working conditions, lack of freedom of movement, confiscation of their passport, lack of food, and denial of payment.[58] They are not covered by existing labour legislation, are at risk of arrest and punishment for violating the gender-segregation rules if they run away, and are not able to access any support services (apart from limited assistance provided by their embassies and a very over-crowded government-run shelter).[59] Female genital mutilation is not a general practice in Saudi Arabia, but a report by Doumato suggests that it does occur among Shia Muslims in the Eastern Province, and possibly among some Bedouin groups.[60] It is also thought to be practised among certain immigrant groups.[61] Most health facilities and hospitals require women to provide evidence of permission from the mahram before they can obtain treatment, although this is not a legal requirement.[62] This inevitably impacts on their capacity to access reproductive healthcare.[63] According to UNFPA, 24% of women reported using some form of contraception.[64] Abortion is legal in cases where the mother’s physical or mental health is in danger.[65]

Son Bias

According to UNFPA, under-five mortality rates are higher for boys than for girls.[66] According to UNICEF, gross primary and secondary school enrolment rates are higher for boys than for girls (primary: boys 69%, girls 66%; secondary: 72% and 64%), although these figures are contradicted in the Special Rapporteur’s report, which states that there are slightly more girls than boys studying at primary, secondary and tertiary levels.[67] The figures above would indicate that Saudi Arabia is not a country of concern in regard to son preference in early childhood care, but that son preference may a factor in access to education. The male/female sex ratio for the total population in 2012 is 1.21.[68] Analysis of sex ratio data across age groups indicates that Saudi Arabia is a country of concern in relation to missing women, although there has been improvement in recent years.

Restricted Resources and Entitlements

Women in Saudi Arabia have the legal right to own land and property other than land.[69] On marriage, women retain control and ownership of any property that they may already own.[70] However, these rights are largely restricted by other laws or social norms.[71] The law requiring physical separation of unrelated men and women in all public areas limits the ability of women to independently own and manage any kind of assets.[72] This and restrictions on freedom of movement mean that it is difficult for women to physically access banks and other financial services.[73] However, legislation forcing women who want to establish their own businesses to hire a male manager in order to receive a commercial license was abolished in 2005, as were regulations stating that women needed permission from their mahram to start a business or take out a bank loan.[74] It is reported that women hold one in five joint investment funds and some 75% of savings in Saudi banks.[75]

Restricted Civil Liberties

Women’s freedom of movement is severely restricted: legally, they need permission to leave their homes, and are forbidden from leaving their local neighbourhood without the company of their mahram,[76] although these legal restrictions may not always be applied in practice. Women are not allowed to drive cars, although as of 2010, there were indications that this restriction might soon be lifted.[77] They can only access certain public services if accompanied by their mahram, and need to be accompanied by a male relative when travelling inside or outside the country.[78] Women are however now able to check into hotels or rent apartments on their own, and a women-only hotel opened in Riyadh in 2008.[79] Saudi Arabia also applies rules of strict gender segregation: women are forbidden to be in physical contact with unrelated males, and unrelated men and women are separated in all public places. Mosques, most ministries and some public streets are reserved for men.[80] Doumato reports that women have only limited access to parks, museums and libraries, which they can only visit at certain times.[81] The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) police are responsible for maintaining gender segregation in public places, and reportedly are often arbitrary and vindictive in their interpretation of laws relating to contact between men and women, and other aspects of ‘morality’, often harassing and physically abusing women who they deem to be breaking the law.[82]

Freedom of expression, association and assembly are all restricted in Saudi Arabia.[83]

There is no national-level elected legislature in Saudi Arabia. Women did not have the right to vote in Saudi Arabia’s first municipal council elections, held in 2005.[84] A Royal Decree was issued in September 2011, after the approval of the Association of Religious Scholars, that permits Saudi women to participate in the Consultative Council by 2013, and in the second municipal elections by 2015. The first female deputy minister was appointed to the government in February 2009 (as deputy minister for girls’ education); the same year saw the first female university president appointed as well.[85] Six women were also appointed to the Shura (the upper chamber) in 2006, but only to advise on ‘women’s issues’, not as full members.[86] Overall, though, women’s representation in decision-making remains very low, and they are completely excluded from all leadership positions within the country’s religious institutions.[87] There are indications that most people would favour an increased role for women in this area: a survey reported in the Special Rapporteur’s report found that 84% of women and 78% of men replied positively to the question ‘Do you believe that women can share decision-making with men on issues of national development?’[88] There are women’s rights activists and organisations active in Saudi Arabia, but they have faced threats and intimidation.[89] Pregnant women are entitled to 10 weeks’ paid maternity leave, and employers who employ more than 50 women are required to provide childcare facilities.[90] Women need permission from their maharm in order to be able to work.[91] The new Labour Code (introduced in 2005), implies that gender segregation in the work place is no longer a legal requirement, but the law is unclear so it is still practiced.[92] According to the Special Rapporteur’s report, this acts as a significant obstacle to women’s full participation in a range of activities in the workplace.[93] In addition, enforced gender segregation in the public sphere limits women’s opportunities for engaging in self-employed income-generating activities in rural areas, as Cotula remarks.[94] Some professions are closed to women, and a loosely defined group of activities that are deemed unsuitable to women’s ‘nature’ and potentially detrimental to their health.[95] However, according to a 2007 UNICEF report, younger men are increasingly supportive of their wives having careers and employment outside the home, not least as their income helps cover expensive living costs in Saudi Arabia.[96] Women have been able to study law since 2007, and they can now act as “legal consultants” to women seeking redress in courts. In addition, the government has taken steps to encourage women’s employment opportunities, for instance by obliging all government agencies to have women’s sections, and new opportunities for women are opening up in the private sphere (such as women-only manufacturing and shopping centres).[97] But women’s participation in the labour market remains low.[98]


  1. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) (2010) World Factbook: Saudi Arabia, online edition, (accessed 7 March 2011)
  2. Freedom House (2010) Freedom in the World Country Reports: Saudi Arabia, online edition, (accessed 7 March 2010); Reference 1; Doumato, Eleanor Abdella (2010) ‘Saudi Arabia’, in Sanja Kelly and Julia Breslin, eds., (2010) Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, New York, NY: Freedom House; Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, p.444
  3. World Bank (n.d.) Data: Saudi Arabia, (accessed 7 March 2011)
  4. Reference 1
  5. Freedom House (2010) Freedom in the World Country Reports: Saudi Arabia, online edition, (accessed 7 March 2010)
  6. Doumato, Eleanor Abdella (2010) ‘Saudi Arabia’, in Sanja Kelly and Julia Breslin, eds., (2010) Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, New York, NY: Freedom House; Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, p.431; Reference 5
  7. Reference 5
  8. Human Rights Council (2009) ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Yakin Ertürk, Addendum MISSION TO SAUDI ARABIA’, A/HRC/11/6/Add.3, UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council, Geneva, p.2; Doumato, Eleanor Abdella (2010) ‘Saudi Arabia’, in Sanja Kelly and Julia Breslin, eds., (2010) Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, New York, NY: Freedom House; Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, p.428
  9. Human Rights Council (2009) ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Yakin Ertürk, Addendum MISSION TO SAUDI ARABIA’, A/HRC/11/6/Add.3, UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council, Geneva, p.2
  10. Reference 9, p.2
  11. Doumato, Eleanor Abdella (2010) ‘Saudi Arabia’, in Sanja Kelly and Julia Breslin, eds., (2010) Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, New York, NY: Freedom House; Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, pp.425, 447
  12. Reference 11, p.425
  13. Reference 11, p.427
  14. Reference 11, p.430
  15. United Nations Development Programme (2011) Human Development Report 2011, available at, accessed 29 February 2012 p.127
  16. Reference 15p.1
  17. World Economic Forum (2011) The Global Gender Gap Report 2011, available at, accessed 2 March 2012 p.11
  18. Reference 9, p.20
  19. Reference 9, p.20
  20. Reference 11, pp.426, 435
  21. Reference 9, p.15
  22. Reference 9, p.15. See also Reference 11
  23. United Nations Population Division / DESA (2008) World Marriage Data. Available to download at (accessed 11 October 2010).
  24. BBC News (2005) ‘Saudi Arabia Bans Forced Marriage’, BBC, 12 April 2005, (accessed 23 March 2011).
  25. Reference 11, p.433
  26. Amnesty International (2010) Amnesty International Report 2009, State of the World’s Human Rights, London: Amnesty International. (accessed 8 November 2010), p.277
  27. Rashad, Hoda, Magued Osman, and Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi (2005), Marriage in the Arab World, PRB (Population Reference Bureau), Washington DC. Available at (accessed 3 March 2011), p.4
  28. Reference 27, p.4
  29. Reference 11, p.433
  30. Uhlman, K. (2004) ‘Overview of Shari’a and Prevalent Customs in Islamic Societies: Divorce and Child Custody’, Expert Law, (accessed 3 March 2011)
  31. United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) (2003) ‘INTEGRATION OF THE HUMAN RIGHTS OF WOMEN AND THE GENDER PERSPECTIVE VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, submitted in accordance with Commission on Human Rights resolution 2002/52 Addendum 1 International, regional and national developments in the area of violence against women 1994-2003’, E/CN.4/2003/75/Add.1, ECOSOC, New York, p.154
  32. Reference 31, p.154; Reference 9, p.21
  33. Reference 31, p.154; Reference 11, p.434
  34. Reference 31, p.154; Reference 9, p.21; Reference 11, p.434
  35. Reference 9, p
  36. Reference 31, p.154
  37. Reference 9, pp.11, 15; Reference 11, p.434
  38. Reference 11, p.434
  39. Reference 11, p.427
  40. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) (2005) ‘Islam, land & property research series’, Paper 6: Islamic inheritance laws and systems, Nairobi, Kenya. Available at (accessed 10 February 2011), p.11
  41. Reference 40, p.11
  42. Reference 40, p.11
  43. Reference 9, p.20
  44. Reference 9, p.20
  45. Reference 9, p.20
  46. Reference 11, p.436
  47. Reference 31, p.154; Reference 9, p.12
  48. Reference 9, p.12; Reference 11, p.436
  49. Reference 9, p.12
  50. Reference 9, pp.18-19
  51. Reference 9, p.19
  52. Reference 9, p.14
  53. Reference 9, p.13
  54. Reference 9, p.14; Reference 5; Reference 11, p.437
  55. Reference 26, p.276
  56. Reference 9, p.16; Reference 1; Reference 11, p.435
  57. Reference 9, p.16; Reference 11, p.435
  58. Reference 26, pp.275, 277; Reference 9, pp.16-17; Reference 11, pp.432, 435
  59. Reference 31, p.155; Human Rights Council (2009), pp.18, 22-23; Reference 11, p.435
  60. Reference 11, p.448
  61. Reference 31, p.154
  62. Reference 11, p.447
  63. Reference 11, p.447
  64. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) (2010) State of the World’s Population 2010. From conflict and crisis to renewal: generations of change, UNFPA, New York , p.97
  65. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (2007)’World abortion policies’, data downloaded from (accessed 21 October 2010)
  66. Reference 64, p.103
  67. UNICEF (2007) State of the World’s Children : the Double Dividend of Gender Equality, New York: UNICEF , p.120; Human Rights Council (2009), p.8
  68. Central Intelligence Agency (2012) The World Fact Book: Sex Ratio, available at, accessed 14 March 2012.
  69. Reference 31, p.153; Reference 11, p.438
  70. Reference 9, p.11
  71. Reference 11, p.438
  72. Reference 11, p.438
  73. Cotula, L. for the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) Legal Office (2002 [2007]), Gender and Law: Women’s Rights in Agriculture, FAO Legislative Study No. 76, 2002 (revised 2007), Rome. Available at, p.131
  74. Reference 9, p.7
  75. AMEinfo (2009) “Saudi businesswomen leave SR50bn of assets unused’’, available at, accessed 19 March 2012
  76. Reference 26, p.277; Reference 11, p.431
  77. Reference 26, p.277; Reference 11, p.431
  78. Reference 11, p.426; Reference 5
  79. Reference 11, p.432
  80. Reference 11, p.432
  81. Reference 11, p.432
  82. Reference 9, p.14; Reference 11, pp.427, 429; Reference 5
  83. Reference 26, p.275; Reference 11, p.446
  84. Reference 11, pp.426, 444
  85. Reference 26, p.276; Reference 9, p.10; Reference 5
  86. Reference 9, p.10; Reference 11, p.445
  87. Reference 9, p.10; Reference 11, p.431
  88. Reference 9, p.10
  89. Reference 11, p.446
  90. International Labour Organization (ILO) (2009) Database of Conditions of Work and Employment Laws, (accessed 7 March 2011)
  91. Reference 11, p.431
  92. Reference 9, p.7
  93. Reference 9, p.7
  94. Reference 73, p.131
  95. Reference 9, p.9; Reference 11, p.439
  96. UNICEF (2007) State of the World’s Children : the Double Dividend of Gender Equality, New York: UNICEF, p.32
  97. Reference 9, p.7; Reference 11, pp.426, 440
  98. Reference 9, p.9; Reference 11, p.438

The Women, Business and the Law

Where are laws equal for men and women? 

The Women, Business and the Law report presents indicators based on laws and regulations affecting women's prospects as entrepreneurs and employees. Several of these indicators draw on the Gender Law Library, a collection of over 2,000 legal provisions impacting women's economic status. This report does not seek to judge or rank countries, but to provide information to inform discussions about women’s economic rights. Women, Business and the Law provides data covering 6 areas: accessing institutions,using property, getting a job, providing incentives to work, building credit, and going to court. Read more about the methodology.

For detailed information on Saudi Arabia, please visit the Women, Business and
the Law Saudi Arabia


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