Commentary

Women Take the Wheel

Although feminism and the state of women’s rights in the United States has received increased attention on Andover’s campus in recent months, it is important to step back and realize that while they still face sexism and hardship, women in Western nations have almost achieved total equality. Outside of the United States, however, many women have yet to attain what most Americans would consider fundamental human rights, such as access to health care, education and freedom of speech. While achieving complete equality in the United States should remain an important goal, women’s rights activists in Western nations should also focus their attention on nations where the goal of equality is far from reality and where women still struggle against oppression in their daily lives. One such state is Saudi Arabia, a “developed” nation that remains steadfast in suppressing movements for women’s rights. According to the 2012 gender inequality index, a measurement of gender disparity created by the United Nations Development Program in 2010, Saudi Arabia ranks 145th out of 148 nations in terms of gender equality (by comparison, the United States ranks as 42nd). Although Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the United States for a long time, the nation is ruled by a wealthy monarchy that imposes Sharia Law on the Saudi Arabian people. Sharia Law is a series of rules based on the interpreted teachings of the Quran, the Islamic holy text. Implementing Sharia Law often deprives women of their rights. Recently, Saudi Arabia has received increased media attention because of women’s protest over the declaration by Saudi Arabian religious scholars and leaders that the act of a woman driving a vehicle is “haram” (forbidden). The attitudes that support this restriction and others like it are unacceptable and must be changed if women are ever to achieve equality in Saudi Arabia. The low percentage of women active in the workforce in Saudi Arabia is another indication of the lack of emphasis on women’s rights there. In the United States, women make up around 47 percent of the total workforce, according to the United States Department of Statistics. Yet in Saudi Arabia, this number is only 15 percent, according to the “New York Times.” In Saudi Arabia, girls are taught from a young age that their place is in the home, not the workplace, and are culturally discouraged from pursuing careers. The current Saudi Arabian government has made small advances towards gender equality. Some of the positive changes have included the appointment of the nation’s first female cabinet member in 2009, as well as the recognition of domestic violence as a crime, though this occurred only two months ago. These changes are crucial, but they are not enough to bring about any real sense of gender equality. Outside influence is needed to effect substantial change in Saudi Arabia. Instead of focusing on their own, comparably minuscule gender problems, American women’s rights activists should work to raise awareness in the United States of the gender equality disparity in countries such as Saudi Arabia. Foreign pressure, action by the United Nations and financial support may be the only way to ever achieve equal rights for women in these countries. As citizens of the United States, we are lucky to live in a nation where women are treated almost as equally as men. However, we hold the responsibility to support the rights of women outside our nation, because only with our help can the world ever hope to experience universal equality.