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Islam And The Gender Disparity In Saudi Arabia

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Muslim women are often seen as subjects that require liberation from the restrictions established by the patriarchal Islamic societal structure. However, this is not always the case and recognizing the clear distinction between choice and force is essential to avoid misleading presumptions. In this literature review, the influence of Islamism on the daily life of women will be analyzed specifically based on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). The authoritarian regime has maintained theocracy through the active application of Islamic teachings. Thus, the established hegemony of the traditional religious implementations on the societal structure is highly complex due to dichotomic interpretations of the Quran and the intertwined link with politics. Consequently, gender disparity is prevalent in Saudi Arabia and can be analyzed through a comparison between the annotations of different scholars on separate themes: the understanding of the Quranic verses and the actors involved and its effect on the family structure, Islamic influence on education, and the dress code. The annotations by varying authors will be critically analyzed based on the established themes, which is essential in amplifying the attempt of this literary review on investigating how Islamism influence gender disparity and women’s daily life in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Scholars have been analyzing the historical context in the implementation of Islam, specifically based on the Quran and Hadith, and its correlation with the Wahhabi tradition and the formation of Sharia, consequently resulting in the structure of gender segregation as a part of the Saudi women’s daily life. Nora Pharaon provides an analysis of the women’s position in society to the “Arab-Islamic heritage,” which is derived from the long-established civilization centered on the values of religion that holds God’s messages at its core of legitimizing the dominance of conservative tradition. The “Arab-Islamic heritage” implies and encourages female seclusion, continuing to be expressed throughout the public domain under the divided areas in the restaurants and mosques in contemporary society. Madawi Al-Rasheed further adds on to the examination of Islam in regards to monotheism, which is central in the Salafi tradition, also known as the Wahabbism. She states Islam as a “monotheistic awakening” that is mainly focused on the general idea of liberating men from oppression.

Originally, Al-Rasheed states that the Quranic verses prioritize the concept of freedom and indicate the umma, the society, should be consisted of believers with an equal right to freedom and should not face repression nor marginalization in any case under the God. Furthermore, according to the holy Quran, men and women are complements of each other and therefore hold the same position in society. Yet, this statement is overlooked by the male authority. Al-Rasheed continues to clarify the use of texts from the Quran and Hadith as it is taken advantage of as a tool to enforce the subjugation of the people to the rulers and specifically in Saudi Arabia, it is understood for the Muslims to never provoke the leaders in a public sphere. The Ulama directly aligns the obedience towards God and the Prophet with the same implication towards the rulers. Again, this ideology is proved through the Quranic phrases that have been selected by the official scholars and explicitly display their authority on society. Amani Hamda defines Ulama as a male, conservative scholars who are the main interpreters of the religious readings and enforces them on the Sharia. Ulama’s dominance over the societal structure of gender segregation is highlighted as she emphasizes the re-examination of the authentic Hadith and the verses from the Quran to identify the misuse of religious readings.

In the original readings, both Hadith and Quran highlight the importance of equality among all Muslims and the individual responsibilities of fulfilling their acts of piety. However, these readings have been misinterpreted by Ulama, in which Pharaon criticizes. She is critical of the fact that the Ulama and the Muslim jurists that are consisted of men interpret Quran based on their perspective, trying to justify their viewpoint on maintaining purity of Islam through neglecting the context and specifically choosing verses to their advantage. Consequently, all scholars call for an action: Pharaon states that the tradition must be reinterpreted or renounced, while Al-Rasheed claims for a more action-oriented reform of resisting Salafism and replace the Wahhabi tradition of obedience with liberation discourse, such as empowerment, in addition to Hamdan’s encouragement to take the stance to denounce the Ulama and to urge them in acknowledging liberal point of views in regards to women.

Gender inequality is deeply embedded in Saudi Arabia and can be expressed explicitly through the family structure and women’s position within. Originating from the Wahhabi tradition, Saudi women were never seen as an individual with independence, but rather as an extension of their lead men figures in the family. Hamdan explains how sons are more preferred in the society since they are viewed as a protector and a helper to the family, and they are capable of continuing the family’s heritage and legacy through carrying on the family name. This notion extends to the perceiving of men being an instrument for the continuation of Muslim ideologies. Moreover, Saudi women did not receive a civil identity card and appeared under her father’s family card and later in her husband’s identity card after the marriage or on her male relative when her father passes away. Yet, there are no verses on confining women to the household in the Quran, instead, it recognizes women’s rights and independence within the lines of not violating Allah’s limits. In this specific phrase, Pharaon does not specify in the ‘limits’ of Allah and should be further elaborated on.

The structural constraints due to the established guardianship system led women to be more dependent on men, consequently, being perceived inferior compared to men, reflecting the patriarchal structure. This male authoritative law undermined the position of women significantly and all decisions had to be permitted by the guardian, restricting public engagement even more. Quanmar provides an explicit example in which a minor son was the legal guardian of his mother. Furthermore, in the aspect of the judicial system, women cannot seek legal intervention without the guardian, thus resulting in Saudi Arabia to have a large number of women suffering from domestic violence that are mostly committed by husbands or fathers.

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The education system in the Kingdom was often used as a tool to convey the progressive development of the Saudi government, but also as an instrument to reinforce the Islamic ideologies. Al-Rasheed mentions the inevitable clash between the government and the Salafi scholars in the process of establishing an educational structure for girls. While the government wished to project their modernization through providing education to girls, the Wahhabi religious scholars opposed and demanded on returning to the traditional Islamic society. Noticeably, the Wahhabi conservative scholars were threatened and afraid that the social dynamics of gender disparity will change by undermining the purity of Islamic tradition. Annemarie van Geel clarifies the situation as a power struggle between the religious scholars and the government. Hence, girls’ education was created in the combination of traditionalism and modernization as Ulama had the authority over the structure and aimed to remain religious. The government managed to successfully establish a modern state and restore the religious, traditional nation. The purposeful act of putting girls education under Ulama’s guidance allowed the structure of the program to achieve a stronger pious nation and teach traditional women roles. As a result, providing education to girls became one of Saudi Arabia’s notable achievements and is often described as “modernization within an Islamic framework.” Despite guiding girls’ educational system, the Ulama still maintained the belief of restricting women’s education and public participation to prevent the mix of genders.

Geel states that before the state schools for girls were formally organized, they faced restrictive opportunities for education. In their program, girls simply had to memorize the Quran while they were still illiterate and were taught on embroidery and a limited amount of arithmetic. After the establishment of state institutions for girls’ education, the education system for boys and girls was contrasting and a gender-biased structure. It can be revealed through the school names for men and women. For men, words such as Falah, meaning success, were named, whereas women’s first schools were organized years later and words such as Dar al-Hanan, meaning house of tenderness, was given. These particular labels provided by the state reinforces the mission of the government that is differentiated between the two genders and further solidifies the gender division. According to the two different extracts from the ‘Home Economics’ textbook, girls are taught to be submissive and obedient and to conform to societal norms and the boys are taught on the insignificance of women and disregards the Prophet’s saying of the equal treatment between both genders. Also, girls were strictly limited even in entering the school due to the guardianship system and had to gain permission from the male lead figure in the family, making it harder for most girls.

The gender-biased curricula for both genders confirm the presumption of the educational mission of normalizing gender differences by promoting stereotypical women’s role as a good mother and a wife that takes care of the family. However, this can also be viewed as a reversed gender-bias towards men since the masculinity of men was also amplified under the same educational structure. For example, as the oil boom occurred, women were considered to be more important in teaching their sons the real rujula, which implies the acquirement of desired male qualities. Al-Rasheed specifically states that the scholars acknowledged women’s education “for the sake of men,” conveying the irony of this phenomenon on how the education of girls was a progressive action for modernity, yet it was still under the fundamental mindset that educating women will be beneficial for men. Al-Rasheed’s statement leads to Geel’s claim that women are often considered as the “culture bearers,” resulting in a clash between modernity and tradition. Moreover, as the number of men studying abroad began to rapidly increase and marrying other more educated women, the government felt threatened and hence educating Saudi women became prioritized to maintain the purity of the nation. Again, this idea is dependent on the notion that men are valuable to society and hence women have to meet the demand to keep the Saudi men in the nation.

In Saudi Arabia, the basic regulation of the dress code is wearing an abaya, or the cloak that covers the whole body and covering the face or head with a niqab or a hijab, depending on the strictness. The strict dress code is the direct outcome of the Ulama’s interpretation of Quranic verses. For example, Quanmar provides an analysis of the statement that the Prophet’s wives were not to meet with the Prophet’s guests and when necessary, they would meet “behind the curtains,” in which the Arabic word hijab is used to describe the curtains, which is used as a headscarf in the modern society. Additionally, he provides another example from the Quran that the Prophet requests the use of his wives’ and daughters’ part of clothing to cover themselves for easier recognition. However, he is unclear on whether the purpose of the covering is because all other female populations do not veil themselves and preferred to stand out from the crowd or if it was to reveal their piety. Furthermore, the Wahhabi interpretations are more strict and focus on the literal translation of the Quranic verses while remaining loyal to the tradition and reject any adaptations or in accepting new interpretations. As a result, veiling in the public sphere is enforced upon women and goes under constant monitor by the mutawa, religious police.

The act of veiling is often viewed as an obligation to the Sharia law and enforcement by the government as a sign of oppression. In the case of Saudi Arabia, a minority of women did not view the covering to be bothersome and as an obstacle that restricts their public engagement. It was perceived as a part of their lifestyle and a tool to keep them safe from the mutawa or unwanted male stares. This perception is extended to Pharaon’s view on the veil of being able to “bridge the gap” between gender-segregated domains and enables expand women’s participation in politics, culture, and society. However, this notion is debatable according to Quanmar since religion is a deeply rooted source of influencing the society and hence the dress code but in Mecca and Medina, spaces are not divided according to gender and veiling is not practiced. In specific, during the act of pilgrimage of Hajj and Umrah, women are encouraged not to veil. Therefore, in reverse, hijab and niqab can turn out to be an obstacle that goes against religiosity.

This article has reviewed literature based on the relationship between Islam and the gender disparity in Saudi Arabia. Having based on the different themes of interpretations on Quran, effect on education, and the dress code, it can be revealed that women were often used as a tool and a symbol to prove the state’s transformation towards modernity. However, women are also the constant target for religious nationalism. The annotations by scholars allowed for an in-depth analysis of the Islamic influence on gender segregation, yet provoked questions for future research. While Quranic verses are interpreted directly in regards to the women’s role in society and how it should be reflected through their behavior and clothing, the scholars fail to acknowledge the verses in regards to the men’s gender norms. When discussing about gender disparity, it may be insightful to consider more of both sides.

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Islam And The Gender Disparity In Saudi Arabia. (2022, February 24). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from
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