Saudi Arabia: Majorities Support Women's Rights

by Magali Rheault

Fifty-five percent of men agree that women should be allowed to drive; 66% of women agree

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The "Qatif girl" has put the spotlight on the Saudi justice system. Last year, several men abducted and raped a young woman and her male friend in Saudi Arabia. While the court sentenced the rapists to prison, it also ruled that the 19-year-old woman (and her male companion) would receive 90 lashes. The woman was in the company of a man not related to her in the absence of her legal male guardian (khulwa), which is illegal in Saudi Arabia. After her lawyer appealed the ruling, the court increased her sentence to 200 lashes and added a six-month prison term. Earlier this week, Saudi King Abdullah pardoned the woman.

The plight of the "Qatif girl" has drawn much international attention and public outcry, but it has also oversimplified the debate over women's rights in Saudi Arabia by focusing on a dramatic case of government action. Findings from a recent Gallup Poll conducted in Saudi Arabia show that majorities of respondents support freedoms for women. Although Saudi men are less likely than Saudi women to agree that certain rights should be guaranteed to women, it is important to note that majorities of men do support such freedoms. People surveyed in Egypt and Iran, where women experience various levels of restrictions, express different opinions and interpretations of women's rights in the Muslim world.

Freedom of Movement and the Right to Work

Age and a valid driver's license usually determine whether an individual can operate a vehicle, but in Saudi Arabia, women are prohibited from driving. Poll results show that 66% of Saudi women and 55% of Saudi men agree that women should be allowed to drive a car by themselves. In light of the ban on female driving, such relatively high levels of public support are remarkable. Recently, several Saudi women founded a group to raise awareness about this issue. This fall, the Committee of Demanders of Women's Right to Drive Cars in Saudi Arabia collected more than 1,000 signatures and sent the petition to the king asking him to rescind the driving ban, which has been official since 1990.

Both sexes also support the right to work outside the home. More than 8 in 10 Saudi women (82%) and three-quarters of Saudi men (75%) agree that women should be allowed to hold any job for which they are qualified outside the home. As a point of comparison, in Iran, the gender gap on this issue is 17 points and in Egypt, it stretches to 21 points.

In recent years, more Saudi women have been entering the labor force. And although less than 20% of women in Saudi Arabia participate in the workforce, they represent 31% of professional and technical workers, according to the United Nations' latest Human Development Report. Speaking at the Tallberg Forum this summer, Princess Deema Bint Turki Ben Abdul Aziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia told the audience that Saudi women "are able to achieve success in several areas of public and social life." For example, in 2005, female candidates ran for seats on the board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and two women were elected, a great achievement in conservative Saudi society. Currently, four women sit on the board.

The Meaning of Equality

Under Islamic law, men bear full financial responsibility to provide for their households and women are not obligated to work outside the home. But if they do, they have the right to keep their wages. This distinction between the genders casts light on the complementary roles that women and men have in Islam, where each is a partner to the other.

Gallup findings reveal that there is no gender gap among Saudis with respect to attitudes toward women keeping their earnings. Eighty-four percent of Saudi women and 83% of Saudi men agree that women should be allowed to keep all earnings from their jobs for themselves and that their husbands should support their households in full. It is noteworthy that a law that appears to disadvantage men receives such strong support from them. The Gallup Poll also asked this question in three European countries: Fifty-eight percent of French respondents agree that women should keep their wages and that their husbands should support them. But in Germany and the United Kingdom, only 38% and 34%, respectively, agree.

However, Egyptian respondents express far less enthusiasm than Saudi respondents do for such a right, as 48% of Egyptian women and 51% of Egyptian men agree on this issue. This finding suggests that in light of the challenging socio-economic realities in Egypt, many families may be forced to ignore rights women do have under Islamic law out of financial necessity. As a comparison, in Iran, 63% of women versus 51% of men agree that women should have the right to keep their wages.

When asked if both sexes should have equal legal rights, almost 8 in 10 Saudi women (79%) and two-thirds of men (66%) agree. In Egypt, respondents express similar levels of support for "equal legal rights" and Iranians, especially women, are even more likely to agree on this issue. But "equal legal rights" do not mean men and women have the same rights. In Islamic family law, rights reflect the different obligations of the wife and husband, acting as partners in life. The issue of "same rights" in Muslim communities could actually mean a loss of rights for women. For instance, in some Muslim societies, women would have to share their wages with their husbands, which they do not have to do under current law, as interpreted by Muslims globally. Such nuance is frequently overlooked in conversations about gender parity in the Muslim world.

The Right to Lead

In 2006, Dr. Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, issued a religious opinion (fatwa) stating that women, under Islamic law, have the right to become heads of state in contemporary Muslim nations. But just as women have the right to keep what they earn or inherit, tradition in patriarchal, conservative societies may take priority over the legal codes.

While the right for women to lead a nation is the issue that elicits the greatest differences of opinions between the sexes in Saudi Arabia, that a slight majority of men agree is remarkable. Sixty-six percent of Saudi women versus 52% of Saudi men agree women should be able to hold leadership positions in the cabinet and the national council. In Iran, the gender split reaches 18 points and in Egypt, the gap between women's and men's attitudes on this item widens to 24 points. In September 2006, findings from a Gallup Panel survey conducted in the United States revealed that 57% of women and 65% of men said that Americans were ready to elect a woman as president.

While many in the international community have focused on the unfairness of the sentence of the "Qatif girl" before the king's pardon, the case should not be considered representative of Saudis' attitudes toward women. In fact, the poll findings reveal that support to ensure certain rights for women exists in Saudi Arabia. Although much remains to be done, Western analysts should not conflate the government's interpretation of Islamic law's restrictions of women and the perspectives of the Saudi public.

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews with 1,006 adults in Saudi Arabia in June-July 2007, aged 15 and older.

In Egypt, results are based on face-to-face interviews with 1,024 adults in July 2007, aged 15 and older.

In Iran, results are based on face-to-face interviews with 1,004 adults in June-July 2007, aged 15 and older.

In France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, results are based on telephone interviews with a total of 3,053 adults, aged 15 and older, in December 2006-January 2007.

In the United States, results are based on telephone interviews with 1,010 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 21-24, 2006. Respondents were randomly drawn from Gallup's household panel. Gallup panel members are recruited through random selection methods. The panel was weighted prior to sampling so that it was demographically representative of the U.S. adult population.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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