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The Week spurred by the exceptional event that recently took place in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, published on 14 December 2015 the following article on women in Saudi Arabia can dos and can’t dos.

Eleven things women in Saudi Arabia cannot do

Women have been allowed to vote for the first time, but their daily lives remain severely restricted

Written by Hassan Ammar/AFP/

Women have been elected to municipal councils in Saudi Arabia for the first time, in ballots held on Saturday. At least 18 women from very different parts of the country have been elected, according to Al Jazeera.

The elections were the first time women were allowed to stand for office or vote, after a ban was lifted by King Abdullah shortly before his death last year.

Officials said that about 130,000 women had registered to vote in what was only the third time Saudis of either gender have gone to the polls in the country’s history.

The vote is being hailed as a landmark for the ultra-conservative kingdom, which has come under increasing criticism for its human rights record. While welcoming the news, rights groups reiterated their objections to other restrictions imposed on women, including a driving ban.

The vote may not have been perfect, said Hala Aldosari on Al Jazeera, but “in the end, building awareness through engagement, rather than through segregation and isolation, is a far more effective policy”.

In a country where a woman cannot even open a bank account without her husband’s permission, here are several other things women in the Muslim kingdom are still unable to do:

  • Go anywhere without a chaperone

Saudi women need to be accompanied by a male guardian known as a ‘mahram’ whenever they leave the house. The guardian is often a male relative and will accompany women on all of their errands, including shopping trips and visits to the doctor.

Such practices are rooted in “conservative traditions and religious views that hold giving freedom of movement to women would make them vulnerable to sins,” according to The Guardian.

In one extreme case, a teenager reported that she had been gang-raped, but because she was not with a mahram when it occurred, she was punished by the court. The victim was given more lashes than one of her alleged rapists received, the Washington Post reports.

The Saudi Arabian government recently announced that it was considering lifting restrictions on women that would allow them to travel without the approval of their relatives, but human rights groups warn the move is likely to be vetoed by senior clerics.

  • Drive a car

There is no official law that bans women from driving but deeply held religious beliefs prohibit it, with Saudi clerics arguing that female drivers “undermine social values”.

In 2011, a group of Saudi women organised the “Women2Drive” campaign that encouraged women to disregard the laws and post images and videos of themselves driving on social media to raise awareness of the issue in an attempt to force change. It was not a major success.

Saudi journalist Talal Alharbi says women should be allowed to drive but only to take their children to school or a family member to hospital. “Women should accept simple things”, he writes for Arab News. “This is a wise thing women could do at this stage. Being stubborn won’t support their cause.”

  • Wear clothes or make-up that “show off their beauty”

The dress code for women is governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law and is enforced to varying degrees across the country. The majority of women are forced to wear an abaya – a long black cloak – and a head scarf. The face does not necessarily need to be covered, “much to the chagrin of some hardliners,” says The Economist. But this does not stop the religious police from harassing women for exposing too much flesh or wearing too much makeup.

The dress code was extended to all female television presenters earlier this year. The king’s advisory body, the Shoura Council, ruled that the women should wear “modest” clothes that do not “show off their beauty”, according to Arab News.

Read more on The Week

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