For a long time, there was a wide consensus among the Saudi population that a woman’s place belongs at home. The direct influence of religious figures played a key role in maintaining a patriarchal system that existed from home, all the way to governmental institutions.
In the past, Saudi women accepted this patriarchal system and navigated through it. Male dominance was considered normal due to the cultural, social and religious atmosphere at that time. Religious publications, sermons and school education used symbolic language and expressions to normalize the limited role of women and to explain the restrictions imposed on their movement.
Describing women as “queens” must have been one of the most widely used expressions until today. It was quite common to hear preachers as well as school teachers explain why women should not drive or work. To them, a “queen” does not need to earn a living or run errands. Women were told that their fathers or husbands will support them financially and their brothers or sons will drive them where they please.
This logic proved to be unconvincing as men did not easily fulfill these roles. The limited, and sometimes non-existent, financial support encouraged women to seek employment. Moreover, the reluctance and refusal of male relatives to offer transportation solutions resulted in the growing demand for foreign drivers (see fig. 1).
Paradoxically, some male guardians allowed women to work only in gender-segregated environments, but did not object when they were alone in the car with a foreign driver. This contradictory logic made women realize that such laws, especially those imposed by their immediate family members, were not only illogical, but were also making their lives more difficult (see fig. 2).
The expression “queens” was used effectively to maintain the status quo of women and limit their movement. Now, such expression is ridiculed widely on social media as pictures of Saudi women waiting for their drivers are circulated using the crown/queen lens from Snapchat to demonstrate their struggles (see figs. 3 and 4).
“Wrapped candy” is another expression used to describe “modest” women. Those who are not considered modest are labelled “unwrapped candy”, alluding to the notion that unwrapped food is usually contaminated and not desired. This unusual expression was commonly used in the past few decades to justify the strict dress code women were encouraged to wear outside the home.
However, with the high number of youth among the Saudi population, more younger women are not adhering to the same strict dress code. Wearing colorful garments and not fully covering is not a welcomed sight everywhere else in the country. Therefore, some still consider the “wrapped candy” expression sensible and applicable to women today. It is no wonder, then, that a group of Saudi filmmakers and actors who produce the content of a popular YouTube channel “Telfaz11” comically explored the candy expression in this videos (from minute 06:20).
The growing number of Saudi women travelling abroad to pursue undergraduate or graduate studies helped in changing old perceptions and demanding change. Saudi women became more independent, increasingly aware of their rights and the importance of freedom of movement. Moreover, the reliance on social media allowed these women to communicate such ideas and helped them unify their voices and demands for change.
The year 2017 brought in promising changes for women. A royal decree issued in May 2017 allowed women to access public services and seek employment without the consent of their male guardians. Lifting the driving ban on women, which was approved in September 2017, will be in full effect in the summer of 2018. An infographic released in January 2018 by the Saudi Foreign Ministry on Twitter lists all of 2017 advancement in the field of women’s empowerment (see fig 5).
However, there are still some voices that remain skeptical. They argue that as long as the guardianship system is not abolished completely, women will always need some form of consent from their male guardians. There seems to be a grey area between law and implementation where restrictions on women still prevail. Indeed, some women do complain that a guardian’s approval is still needed despite the royal decree, which shows that implementation remains to be a problem in some sectors.
Allowing women to drive will left the restrictions imposed on women’s movement inside the country. However, women will still need their guardian’s approval to issue or renew their passport. The movement of women inside the country might have been eased, but their movement in and out of the country is still restricted without a guardian’s consent.
It is no wonder, then, that a hashtag on Twitter (
#اسقاط_الولاية) has been trending for more than 500 days. In this hashtag, Saudi women from different age groups are calling for abolishing the guardianship system that is considered the root of the problem. Abolishing the system seems to be the most difficult step in the reform process. This is because an end to the guardianship system means an end to a long-standing tradition that will effect the private and public lives of both Saudi men and women.