Saudi Arabia Table of Contents

The family and religious values have profound implications for future development and for policy planning. Family values, and the corresponding behaviors of individuals, have been institutionalized by the state in the process of centralizing control and allocating resources. Many of the state-supported restrictions on women, for example, did not exist in the 1960s and 1970s. They were the product of attempts to reconcile family and religious values with opportunities and objectives that have grown out of the development process and of increased religious conservatism. Over the past two decades, one striking outgrowth of Saudi development has been rapid migration of the population to the cities. In the early 1970s, an estimated 26 percent of the population lived in urban centers. In 1990 that figure had risen to 73 percent. The capital, Riyadh, had about 666,000 inhabitants according to the 1974 census (the most recent official census). By 1984 the population, augmented by the removal of the diplomatic missions from Jiddah to Riyadh, was estimated at about 1.8 million.

Urbanization, education, and modernization were having profound effects on society as a whole, but especially on the family. The urban environment fostered new institutions, such as women's charitable societies, that facilitated associations and activities for women outside the family network. Urban migration and wealth were breaking up the extended family household, as young couples left hometowns and established themselves in single-family homes. Education for women also was encouraging the rise of the nuclear family household: a study in Ad Dammam carried out in 1980 showed that of a sample of 100 salaried women, 91 percent of whom had a high-school or university education, fully 90 percent lived in nuclear family households. By contrast, in a sample of rural women who were 91 percent illiterate, only half lived in a nuclear family unit. The same study showed that the more educated, salaried women had an average of two children, as opposed to rural women with an average of 4.6 children. As the level of education rose, the age of first marriages rose as well: 79 percent of the salaried women were over the age of sixteen (and most over the age of nineteen) when first married, whereas 75 percent of rural women were married between the ages of ten and twelve.

In spite of the limitations imposed by sex-segregation values, and in spite of the small proportion of women in the work force relative to men (7 percent in 1990), the number of working women--and the kinds of places in which they worked--were growing. In the early 1990s, women were employed in banks, including banks exclusively for women, in utility and computer operations, in television and radio programming, and in some ministries. They worked as clerical assistants, journalists, teachers and administrators in girls' schools, university professors, and as social workers. In medicine, women served as doctors, pharmacists, and, more recently, as nurses. In 1992 there were almost 3,100 Saudi women trained and employed as nurses, or 10 percent of the total number of nurses employed in the kingdom. This number represented a dramatic change in the attitudes of some families, not only toward the profession, but about the limits of sex segregation. In the 1970s, nursing was disparaged as a profession for women because of the presumed contact it entailed with male doctors and patients; nursing programs in Saudi Arabia thus could not recruit female Saudi students.

By the 1990s, women had proved themselves competent to succeed in employment that had been culturally perceived as men's work, and, in the academic field they had shown that they could be more successful than men. Women had also carved out for themselves positions of respect outside the family, whereas previously an aspect of respect for women came from being unknown outside the family.

The practices of veiling and separation, and the values underlying these practices, however, were not being dislodged. There was little expressed desire for such change because the practices were grounded in fundamental family values, religiously sanctioned and institutionalized by the government. The premise that women, from a moral standpoint, should not associate with unrelated men was the basis for all Saudi regulations on the behavior of women, including the separation of boys and girls in the education system, the requirement that women have a male chaperon to travel, that women hire a male manager as a requirement for obtaining a commercial license, that women not study abroad without a male chaperon, not check into a hotel alone, and not drive a car in the kingdom.

There was a link between tribal-family values, religion, and state power that made intelligible the outcome of the women's driving demonstration of November 1990. If, in fact, society held as a basic moral premise that a woman should not be seen by any man outside her own family, how could the same society allow her to drive a car, when anyone passing by could see her face? The position of the ulama as stated in a fatwa by the head of the Department of Religious Research, Missionary Activities, and Guidance was that women should not be allowed to drive because Islam supported women's dignity. The fatwa did not say that Islam forbade women's driving--Saudi Arabia was the only Muslim country that forbade women to drive--but said that because Islam supported women's dignity, a Muslim government must protect women from the indignity of driving. The state could not easily abrogate such rulings of the ulama because these rulings responded to the family-tribal values and the interpretations of Islam that were at the heart of Saudi society. The general public response was supportive of the ulama and the actions of the state. Indeed, there was a broad consensus of support for such rulings precisely because they corresponded to the values of modesty and sex segregation that were enmeshed in religion and in the honor of the family.

Changes being wrought through urbanization and development were having disturbing consequences for the traditional notion of the family and its values. They brought closely held religious values into question. For men, the consequences were particularly unsettling because these changes brought their position of control and protection of the family into question. Education, urbanization, and modernization placed women in areas of public space where, culturally, they should not be, for public space was space reserved for men. The physical world around Saudis was changing. Social groupings were realigning, status categories were shifting, and economic dislocations were altering people's income expectations. In such a fluctuating world, for both men and women, clinging to traditional attitudes about women in the family was an expression of a desire for stability in the society at large. The development policies of the 1970s and 1980s, had in effect, planted the seeds of a cultural backlash, seeds that were coming into flower in the early years of the decade of the 1990s.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress