Women's rights in the Islamic world


1955: First school for girls, 1970: First university for women

Girls have not always been able to go to school like these students in Riyadh. Enrollment at the first school for girls, Dar Al Hanan, began in 1955. The Riyadh College of Education, the first higher education institution for women, opened in 1970.


2001: ID cards for women

At the start of the 21st century, women could get personal ID cards for the first time. The cards are the only way for them to prove who they are, for example in disputes relating to inheritance or property issues. IDs were only issued with the permission of a woman's guardian, though, and to the guardian instead of directly to the woman. Only in 2006 were women able to get IDs without permission.


2005: End of forced marriages - on paper

Saudi Arabia banned forced marriage in 2005, but marriage contracts continue to be hammered out between the husband-to-be and the father of the bride, not the bride herself.


2009: The first female government minister

In 2009, King Abdullah appointed the first female minister to Saudi Arabia's government. Noura al-Fayez became the deputy education minister for women's affairs.


2012: First female Olympic athletes

Saudi Arabia agreed to allow female athletes to compete on the national team for the Olympics for the first time. One of them was Sarah Attar, who ran the women's 800 meter race at the 2012 Olympics in London wearing a headscarf. Before the Games, there was speculation that the Saudi Arabian team might be banned for gender discrimination if they didn't allow women to participate.


2013: Women are allowed to ride bicycles and motorbikes

Saudi leaders allowed women to ride bicycles and motorbikes for the first time in 2013 — but only in recreational areas, wearing full Islamic body covering and with a male relative present.


2013: First women in the Shura

In February 2013, King Abdullah swore in the first 30 women to the Shura, Saudi Arabia's consultative council. This allowed women to be appointed to these positions, soon they would be allowed to actually run for office...


2015: Women can vote and get elected

In Saudi Arabia's 2015 municipal elections, women were able to vote and run for office for the first time. By contrast, New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote, in 1893. Germany did so in 1919. At the 2015 Saudi polls, 20 women were elected to municipal roles in the absolute monarchy.


2017: First female head of the Saudi stock exchange

In February 2017, the Saudi stock exchange names the first female chairperson in its history, Sarah Al Suhaimi.


2018: Women will be allowed to drive

On September 26, 2017, Saudi Arabia announced that women would soon be allowed to drive. Starting June 2018, they will no longer need permission from their male guardian to get a driver's license and won't need their guardian in the car when they drive.


2018: Women to be allowed in sports stadiums

On October 29, 2017, the country's General Sports Authority announced that women would be allowed into sports stadiums for the first time. Three previously male-only arenas will soon be open for women as well, starting in early 2018.

Women will soon be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, but what about other fundamental rights? We take a look at the lamentable state of women's rights in the Islamic kingdom and other countries across the region.

Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday that it would grant women the right to obtain driver's licenses without permission from their legal guardians. The Islamic kingdom will become the last country in the world to allow women to drive. When the new rules come into force in 2018, women won't need a male guardian in the car with them either.

It will bring an end to one of the may reasons that the strict Islamic country is subject to regular international ridicule and rebuke. In other Arab nations, women have long been allowed to drive, but that doesn't mean they enjoy the same rights as men in all social spheres — far from it.

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Male guardians

The concept of male guardianship implies that women shouldn't make important decisions regarding their own lives, and that they need protection when out and about in the world. In Saudi Arabia, every woman must have a male guardian — her father, brother, husband, uncle or even son — who has to give his approval before the woman can travel outside the country, get married or divorced and be released from prison. This does not change if her guardian is abusive.

Women can't sign a contract without permission from their guardian either, and they are to limit the times they interact with men outside their family as much as possible. That's why many public buildings, parks and means of transportation are segregated by sex. In court, the testimony from one man equals that of two women.

In Iran, a husband can also ban his wife from traveling internationally or working, if he believes that his wife starting a job is "incompatible with the interests of the family or with his or his wife's dignity," according to the country's civil code.

In 2016, Bahrain's ministry of justice released regulations stating that women younger than 45 were not allowed to go on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca without a male guardian.


Millions of Muslim Pilgrims

The hajj is an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the most holy city for Muslims. All Muslims are expected to perform this religious duty at least once in their lifetime if they are physically and financially able. It is one of the five pillars of Islam, or core ritual practices, and considered to be the largest gathering of people in the world, with millions attending every year.


Following the prophet

As many as three million pilgrims perform a series of rituals over the course of five or six days. First, they stop to pray at the Grand Mosque, home to a cubic building draped in black silk called the Kaaba, Islam’s most important shrine.


Stoning the devil

Pilgrims travel to the village of Mina to again pray and read from the Quran. Next they spend a day at Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammed gave his final sermon, to ask for forgiveness. On their return journey to Mecca, the pilgrims stop on a plain called Muzdalifah to collect stones, which they will throw at three pillars in Mina to symbolically stone the devil.


Circling Kaaba

Finally, upon returning to Mecca, the pilgrims will circle the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque seven times, bringing their hajj to a close. They then shave their heads and perform an animal sacrifice before celebrating the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, or the Festival of Sacrifice.


Tragedy during hajj

Since 1987, more than 5,800 people have died in building collapses, stampedes, trampling and fires. In 2015, a stampede resulted in around 2,400 deaths, making it the worst catastrophe in the history of hajj. The pilgrimage is also a hotbed of infectious disease, as pilgrims from every corner of the planet often trek around in the heat barefoot and share tight sleeping quarters.


Bringing the new to the old

While the hajj is the oldest and most sacred ritual of Islam, it has also been brought into the 21st Century. The Saudi government is using the latest in crowd-control techniques to prevent trampling and architectural collapses. On YouTube, they telecast live hajj and now, Google, iTunes and other sites have come out with hajj apps to help pilgrims better understand and perform the hajj rituals.

Political participation

In Saudi Arabia, women won the right to vote only in 2015. That was also the year they were first allowed to run for "elected office" in the absolute monarchy. The first woman had been appointed as a government minister just six years earlier.

Some women in Syria were allowed to vote as early as 1949, the remaining restrictions were removed by 1953. In 2015, 12 percent of the members in the national parliament (voted in amidst the country's ongoing civil war amid very low turnout) were women. Hadiya Khalaf Abbas, who is currently the speaker of the parliament, is the first woman to have ever held the position.

In Egypt, women gained the right to vote in 1956, in Tunisia in 1959 and in Mauretania in 1961.

In Iran, women gained suffrage in 1963, after a referendum found a majority of the Iranian people in favor of women's right to vote. A six-point reform program called the White Revolution was passed, which included suffrage and allowing women to run for office.   

Related Subjects

Dress code

The dress code in Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia law. Women must wear a loose black garment called an abaya and a headscarf when they leave the house.

In Iraq, women in urban areas wear modest western clothing, but the "Islamic State" (IS), and other Islamist fundamentalists before it, has tried to impose strict rules on what women are allowed to wear. When IS was controlling the city of Mosul, women there had to wear a Burqa, a garment covering the entire body and face with a mesh screen over the eyes.

Iran Junge Frauen vor einem Einkaufszentrum im Nordwesten von Teheran

These young women in Tehran aren't afraid to wear their headscarves in a relaxed fashion. That's not possible everywhere in Iran.

In Iran, women are officially supposed to wear either a chador (a black, shapeless garment covering the whole body), or a headscarf, long pants and a long-sleeved, lightweight coat called a manteau. In conservative, often rural areas, these rules are strictly observed. But on the streets of big cities like Tehran, women wear shorter manteaux and pull their headscarves back to show their hair.

In somewhat more westernized countries like Tunisia and Egypt, there is no official dress code for women, but dressing modestly, covering knees and shoulders, is expected.

Marriage and divorce

In Saudi Arabia, a man can have several wives, but a woman cannot have several husbands. Marriages are often arranged by family. In 2005, forced marriages were banned, but marriage contracts are still between the husband-to-be and the father of the bride, not the bride herself. A man can divorce a woman by saying "I divorce you" (Talaq) three times, or indeed by sending a written note. That process was recently outlawed in India. For a woman, it's a slower and much more difficult process in which the husband has to consent to the divorce. Also, women getting divorced automatically lose custody for daughters who are older than nine and sons who are older than seven to their soon-to-be-ex-husbands.

 In Syria, a country with secular as well as religious courts, marriage contracts are also signed by the future husband and the father of the bride. A woman can apply for a divorce through the judicial system. In order to be granted one, she has to prove that her husband either abused her or neglected his duties as a husband.

Morocco recently updated their family law, built around the Moudawana, or family code. It now allows divorce due to "irreconcilable differences" for both men and women. But there are still traditional rules as well. The case of 16-year-old Amina Filali made headlines in 2012 when she killed herself after being forced to marry her rapist, who evaded prosecution this way. However, her case ultimately led to Morocco repealing the law allowing rapists to avoid prosecution by marrying their victims.