General and Cultural Freedoms
As of now, the “general practice” is for women to wear fully-covering black veils, and for men to wear long white shirts covering to the wrists, as well as a head cover. There is a religious police force, the Mutawwa’in, that enforces these practices. On March 15, 2002, 15 schoolgirls died because religious police (also called the “Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice”) refused to let them exit a burning building due to their dress, sparking a backlash against the police and their practices. Along with dress code, the religious police force also enforces segregation on the basis of sex, driving restrictions on women, and designated prayer times for people attending mosque.
Saudi Arabia has no freedom of religion. The state religion is Islam, and all citizens are required to be Muslims. The government does not allow the public expression, proselytizing, and meetings of religions excluding Islam. For example, one cannot wear a Christian cross or a Jewish Star of David in public without fear of retaliation by the Mutawwa’in, the religious police.
Saudi Arabia is a country severely lacking freedom of expression. As articulated by Freedom House, “Authorities do not permit criticism of Islam or the ruling family by domestic media, and a national security law prohibits criticism of the government.”
Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit organization reporting on freedom of the press and of expression throughout the world, labeled Saudi Arabia one of the 15 “Enemies of the Internet.” Saudi Arabia is reported to have blocked over 400,000 websites, including those with any relation to politics, homosexuality, education, western entertainment (music, movies…), religion excluding Islam, and pornography. Also, many books are banned from Saudi Arabia, as shown by the illegality of distributing Christian Bibles.
Saudi Arabia does not employ conscription as a way to bolster its standing army.
Saudi Arabia’s education system leaves minimal freedom for the student to explore paths of thought diverging from the one prescribed by the Government. Prince Fahn bin Sultan, Tabouk District Governor, stated that “There is no room for personal commentary by a teacher who sets the curriculum aside. He must not deviate from it – even if he has spare time during the lesson.” There is a “ban on teaching Western philosophy and religions other than Islam,” and “informers monitor classrooms for compliance with limits on curriculums.” All students of the education system must take a minimum of 3 hours of Islamic study courses a week.
Education in Saudi Arabia is separated by sex, and curriculum is altered for the sexes. Girls are not permitted to enter into traditional Islamic education, yet there is higher female enrollment in secondary education than male enrollment. Female literacy rates are at 50.2%, and at 71.5% for males.
Government-granted “Rights of Age”
Saudi Arabia is one of the four countries in the world that has not granted women the right to vote, along with Bhutan, Brunei, and Lebanon (which has an education restriction for women, but not for men). The male voting age in Saudi Arabia is 21. In Saudi Arabia, drinking alcohol, no matter what age, is forbidden. Recognizing its constitution as the Koran, Saudi Arabia utilizes the text as a religious justification in outlawing the substance. The country is one of the few countries in the world that bans alcohol. Furthermore, the punishments are very stringent. “Sentences for alcohol offences range from a few weeks or months imprisonment for consumption to several years for smuggling, manufacturing or distributing alcohol. Lashes can also be part of the sentence; and a hefty Customs fine if smuggled alcohol is involved. The authorities also hand out stiff penalties to people found in possession of equipment for making alcohol.”
Saudi Arabia also has one of the highest driving ages in the world at 25, and in addition does not allow women to drive. Again citing religious reasons, the government does not allow women to ride bicycles.
Women of all ages and unmarried children require the consent or the accompaniment of a close male relative or spouse to leave the country.
The employment age of Saudi Arabia is 13, yet there are restrictions on the type of work and the length of work (6 hours a day). Saudis are given full rights as workers at age 18.
There is no specific age restriction for marriage, but as dictated by Islamic tradition, the age of marriage must “ensure happiness for both spouses and prevent the countless social dangers inherent in delaying the age of marriage…the person wishing to marry must have the capacity therefore.”
Health and Sexuality
Abortion in Saudi Arabia is mostly restricted. The only situations in which the operation is permissible is when the woman’s life is at risk, and when it is needed either to preserve the physical or mental health of the woman.
Homosexuality is strictly forbidden; sodomy is punishable by death, and this penalty has been carried out in recent years. Like many other “harsh” laws, the reasoning is linked to religion. However, gay life in Saudi Arabia is flourishing, facilitated by the large amount of contact between men, the view by the religious police that what goes on in the private sphere is outside their jurisdiction, and the general sentiment that to be gay is not a lifestyle rather than a practice some men engage in.
The importation and use of contraceptives is banned, and is punishable by six months in jail.
Dating and Marriage
Most marriages are arranged, but there is a growing trend perticularly in urban areas for people to pick their own future spouses. Because of the mandated separation of the sexes, dating is essentially non-existent. Men occasionally pay dowries for their brides. Polygamy is legal for up to four wives.
Sex before marriage, especially for women, is taboo. On top of the inevitable dishonor brought to oneself and ones family, one may also be punished with lashings by the government.
A History of Saudi Arabia, Madawi Al-Rasheed