Consortium of:

Women in the Middle East: Case Studies of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel

  January 8th 2021

Photo by: Mostafa Meraji on

On November 25, 2020, the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) and the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS) held the online Wednesday forum with the topic ‘Women in the Middle East: Case Studies of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel’. The speaker was Saba Soomekh, a lecturer at The Academy for Jewish Religion-CA, where she teaches religious studies and Middle Eastern History courses in addition to serving as the Associate Director at AJC-LA. Dr. Soomekh is the editor of the book Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews in America (Purdue University Press, 2016) and the author of the book From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women between Religion and Culture (SUNY Press, 2012). Her book was awarded the Gold Medal in the 2013 Independent Publisher Book Award in the religion category. Soomekh teaches and writes extensively on world religions, women and religion, intersectionality and its impact on the Jewish community, and the geopolitics of the Middle East. In the summer of 2019, Soomekh was a Scholar-in-Residence at Oxford University with the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy. Soomekh also is involved in several interfaith and intercultural projects and is a consultant for numerous schools in Los Angeles focusing on creating honest dialogue about cultural issues. The moderator of this event was Dr. Dicky Sofjan, core doctoral faculty and lecturer at ICRS.

In her presentation, Soomekh explained her comparative study of women's rights in three countries, namely Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel. She is concerned with various critical social and political events in the three countries that show progress or even deterioration in respect to women's rights. Firstly, Soomekh shared about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, a monarchy ruled by King Abdullah since 2005 and currently ruled by Crown Prince Mohamed. Soomekh explained that in the past women in Saudi Arabia had the opportunity to study. The first school for girls was established in 1955 and in 1970 the first university for women in Saudi Arabia was opened,  The Riyadh College of Education. However, two events affected the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and led the country to become much more conservative in its practice of Wahabi Sunni Islam. The two critical events were the Grand Mosque seizure and the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. The Iranian Islamic revolution caused Saudi Arabia to fear Shia dominance, actions believed to be meddling in the Middle East, and the creation of Shiite minority rebels. Therefore, Wahabi culture in Saudi became stronger, observable by certain rules such as no alcohol, secular music, films, socializing between the sexes, no other religions allowed to practice, women must cover their bodies and faces (abaya with a niqab—a veil that covers the face). Therefore, the incremental progress made in the 20th century for women's rights was minimal, and aside from access to education, women were deprived of most social, political, and legal rights.

Furthermore, Soomekh argues that it is also interesting to compare the dynamic of the respect of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia in the King Abdullah era (1924-2015) and today's era under Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman or MBS. In the past, King Abdullah granted women the right to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections. He also appointed 30 women to the top advisory body, the Shura Council, but the body cannot legislate. King Abdullah's reign increased women's political and economic rights and enhanced their access to higher education. Moreover, in 2001 for the first time, women were issued national ID cards, and the first female vice-minister was appointed in 2009. Meanwhile, nowadays MBS has a vision for 2030 which also affects women’s rights. Soomekh explains that MBS said women can get an education and seek medical care without male consent. Related to discrimination in courts, divorce, inheritance, MBS said that women do not need to bring a male guardian to identify them, testimony is considered half of that of a man in some cases. MBS also has a vision that 60% of university students will be women and literacy rates of more than 90% for young women. Moreover, some recent progress is seen today such as the average age of marriage is 25, movie theaters have reopened and women can attend, Saudi women can now drive cars, and women can attend sports events. MBS also has relaxed the Kingdom's mandatory conservative dress code for tourists, morality police no longer troll neighborhoods and shopping malls. Last year, MBS also hosted the Electronic Music Festival in Riyadh with 60,000 in attendance with no separation of gender and a large number of models, DJs, and social influencers were flown in. Unfortunately, there was a large number of sexual assaults were reported in that event.

Before MBS, women were separated from men when in public. The strict segregation policies acted as a disincentive to employers wanting to hire women, working women have little or no access to senior officials and policymakers. Business and government agencies in Saudi Arabia were segregated, with the exceptions of oil giant Saudi Aramco and some foreign companies. However, in January 2019, the Kingdom announced the "Women in the Workplace” initiative, requiring equal pay for equal work. Women make up approximately 20% of the Saudi domestic labor force but earn 54% of what men make for equivalent work, so this will be a major improvement. The new initiative does not demand complete gender segregation of the work environment, instead, it requires that the employers that have female employees provide a cubicle for any women that requests one. Therefore, a female employee has the option to work in a mixed-gender office or in a private cubicle.

Moreover, a series of bureaucratic and governance reforms have improved the lives of women, especially related to the matter of male guardianship of women. The guardianship system gives male relatives control over women's travel, education, medical treatment, and marriage. There is even an app called Absher that allows Saudi men to specify when and where women can travel. The service includes a message alert when a woman uses her passport at an airport or a border crossing. If women are caught, they can be jailed or housed in a government-run shelter until their guardian permits her release. This made it difficult for Saudi women seeking refuge abroad. Women were escaping Saudi Arabia and used social media to gain support for their independence provoking MBS to propose new guardianship laws. In August 2019, women were allowed to apply for a passport and travel without the permission of a male guardian. Prior to this reform, Saudi civil law considered women as legal minors and required the permission of her father or husband to travel. In that month, women were also granted the right to apply for a birth certificate for their children or a death certificate for a deceased immediate relative—two legal rights that were available only to men before this reform. The new regulation also extends to the workplace and the home, thus women will now receive standard employment discrimination protections. Along with her husband, a woman can also now register as a co-head of the household. However, there is still criticism toward MBS, because it is believed that widespread change may be slow to be implemented given that many aspects of the guardianship system are upheld as much by custom as by law. Guardianship rules will continue to govern many other aspects of a women's life, including marriage and exiting prison. MBS was behind a harsh crackdown on political dissent, and although MBS portrays himself as the leader who is steering the country toward more secular modernity, women feel trapped and are running away in hopes of gaining asylum in western countries.

Meanwhile, in Iran, it is interesting that in the era of the Pahlavi Dynasty (1925-1979), Iran was upholding modernity, secularization, and emancipation. Under the Reza Shah (1925-41) women's rights were recognized. The great attention to women's rights is indicated by some important event and regulations regulated by the King, such as: in,1928 women received financial support to study abroad; in 1935, women were admitted to Tehran University; in 1936, there was a mandatory unveiling of women and desegregation of women; in 1944, education became compulsory; 1950 was the time of the birth of numerous women's rights organizations; 1963 women's suffrage (6 women elected to Parliament); in 1969, the judiciary was opened to women and five female judges were appointed including future Nobel prize winner Shirin Ebadi. In 1975, family protection law was granted giving women equal rights in marriage and divorce and enhancing women's rights in child custody. This also increased the minimum age of marriage to 18 for women and 20 for men, polygamy was eliminated, abortion made legal and all labor laws and regulations were revisited to eliminate sex discrimination and incorporate equal pay for equal work. Women were also encouraged to run for political office. In 1978, 40% of girls age six and above were literate, over 12.000 literacy corps women were teaching in the village, 33% of university students were women,  333 women were elected to local councils, 22 women were elected to parliament and 2 served in the senate, even there was one cabinet minister for women's affairs, 3 sub-cabinet undersecretaries, one governor, an ambassador, and five women mayors.

However, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 changed many things. This revolution has transformed Iran from a monarchy to an Islamic Republic. Khomeini became the supreme leader and theocratic Constitution was applied to almost all aspects of Iranian life, from the economy to cultural practices. Industry was nationalized, laws and schools Islamicized, and Western influence banned. Nevertheless, after the 1979 revolution, women in Iran remain highly educated and literate. Today more than 60% of all university students in Iran are women. Unfortunately, a married woman cannot leave the country without her husband's permission and a women's testimony as a witness is worth half that of a man, in compliance with the sharia basis of the legal system. Women in Iran today are excluded from numerous fields and occupations. In 1992, it was decided that women were allowed in certain professions that are "Islamically" appropriate like pharmacists, midwives, laboratory workers, legal consultants, but not judges. Thus, today, 35 % of public sector employees are women, mostly working in the fields of education and health. Related to matters of dress, women must wear chador and loose-fitting clothes. Modesty requirements are enforced by the morality police. Related to the issue of marriage, polygamy and temporary marriage are permitted for men up to four wives, but not for women. Furthermore, women are frequently subjected to honor killings. In cases where the father kills his daughter, he is not liable for the death penalty, but can only be imprisoned. The legal age of marriage for girls was reduced to 9 and later raised to 13. And, married women are barred from attending regular schools. Therefore, according to Amnesty International, women in Iran face discrimination in law and practice concerning marriage and divorce, inheritance, and child custody. Nevertheless, women continue to fight for their rights in Iran, for example, in 2006 a petition garnered one million signatures for the repeal of the discriminatory laws. In 2009, women in Iran actively joined the Green Revolution.

Lastly, Soomekh explained that in Israel interestingly in its Declaration of Independence it is mentioned that "The State of Israel  will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex.” Israeli law prohibits discrimination based on gender in employment and wages and provides for class action suits. Whether there are still wage disparities between men and women, there is large participation of women in the workplace and in executive positions. In 2017, Israel was ranked the world's 8th safest country for women by the New World Wealth research group. Israel, itself, was the third country in the world to be led by a female prime minister, Golda Meir (1969-1974). In 2019, women comprised 25% of Israel's 120 member Knesset (The Knesset is the name for the Israeli Parliament). The Knesset passed laws to prevent discrimination, combat violence against women, regulate that rape, including spousal rape, is a crime in Israel and, therefore,  Moshe Katsav, President of Israel (2000-2007) was convicted of two counts of rape and was sentenced to seven years in prison. The Knesset also promotes equality in politics, lifecycle events, and education. Furthermore, Soomekh explains that the Israel Ministry of Social Affairs operates battered women's shelters and an abuse reporting hotline. The police operate a call center to inform victims about their cases. Women's organizations provide counseling, crisis intervention, legal assistance, and shelters. Today, in the Supreme Court of Israel, of 15 judges, four are women, even the current president of the Supreme Court is a woman, Esther Hayut.

Regarding the issue of secularization and the religious side of the country, though the founding fathers of the state were mostly oriented towards a secular and liberal, or socialist ideology, they assigned to the religious institutions all matters concerning personal status. Orthodox Judaism, acting according to Jewish law, obtained a monopoly over official Jewish religious life and personal status. In marriage matters, it is performed only under the auspices of the religious community to which the couple belongs and there is no interfaith marriage. Related to the military, Israel is one of only a few countries in the world with a mandatory military service requirement for women. However, women who state that they maintain a religious Jewish way of life are exempt from military service, and many of them choose to volunteer for an alternative national service. Related to LGBTQ rights, Israel's LGBTQ rights are the most developed and tolerant in the Middle East.