10 Things Saudi Arabian Women Still Can't Do Without Male Permission

While Saudi Arabia allowed women to drive, many major restrictions remain on their rights.


In truly historic news, Saudi Arabia has decided to let women drive. The royal decree marks significant progress in the rights of women in the kingdom, which was the only country in the world prohibiting women from driving. The change is predicted to be the catalyst of transformation in the Saudi workforce and societal norms. 

Saudi Arabia’s longstanding policy of not allowing women drivers has been a source of controversy over human rights and symbolic of the oppression of women. The change that is slated to take place in the strict Sunni Muslim nation on June 2018 may also benefit Saudi Arabia’s international reputation and boost its economy by growing women’s involvement in the workforce. Previous to the new ruling, Saudi women had to spend much of their money on driver salaries or be driven by male relatives. 

The announcement was greeted enthusiastically in Washington, with Heather Nauert, the spokeswoman for the State Department, calling it “a great step in the right direction for that country,” according to the New York Times. 

The Times attributes the monumental change to the rising influence of the 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s son. He has made strong efforts to overhaul the kingdom’s society and economy.  

Despite this advancement, women in Saudi Arabia still face many restrictions and possible human rights violations. “Guardianship laws” are set up to prevent women from many activities. Every woman in Saudi Arabia has a guardian, called “wali”. Usually, that role goes to a father, a husband or even a son. 

Here are 10 things that women of Saudi Arabia still can’t do without male permission:

1. Wear what they want - the dress code is governed by Sharia law, requiring most women to wear a long cloak, called “abaya” and a head scarf.

2. Get married or divorced.

3. Retain custody of their children in a divorce after they reach a certain age (7 for boys, 9 for girls).

4. Interact with men to whom they are not related - the society is very segregated between the sexes and improper mixing could lead to harsh punishment.  

5. Apply for national ID cards or passports.

6. Travel abroad.

7. Conduct official government business.

8. Get a job.

9. Have elective medical procedures.

10. Get a fair hearing in court - in Saudi Arabia, a woman’s legal position is viewed as that of a minor, with the testimony of one man equaling that of two women .

The decree will allow women to get driver licenses and to drive alone, but it’s not clear yet if they will be permitted to work as professional drivers. Even the police would have to be retrained to interact with women drivers. 

Clearly, there’s still a lot of work to be done for women of Saudi Arabia to be treated equally. Saudi Arabia places 141st out of 144 countries on the global gender parity rankings. The United States also places a rather unimpressive 45th. 

Saudi activist Manal Al Sharif, flashes the sign for victory as she drives her car in the Gulf Emirate city on October 22, 2013. (Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

Manal Al Sharif, a Saudi activist for women drivers, expressed her optimism on Twitter:

“Today is a rehabilitation to women from 1990 till the moment women can drive. We continue our journey to demand an end to male guardianship,” she wrote.

For more discussion on the importance of improving the rights of women around the world, watch Bill Nye talk how allowing more women access could impact the looming overpopulation  crisis:

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.