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Things women in Saudi Arabia cannot do

Ban on women entering a Starbucks store in Riyadh is latest in long line of restrictions.

Women in Saudi Arabia claim to have been temporarily banned from entering a branch of Starbucks in the capital Riyadh.

A sign was placed in the window of the coffee shop saying: “Please no entry for ladies only send your driver to order thank you”, after a wall designed to segregate men and women was reportedly removed during renovations.

A customer who tweeted a picture of the sign, which was written in English and Arabic, said the store “refused to serve me just because I’m a woman and asked me to send a man instead”.

In a statement, the shop said: “We are working as quickly as possible as we refurbish our Jarir store, so that we may again welcome all customers in accordance with local customs.”

Men and women are segregated in the majority of public spaces in Saudi Arabia, with the Muslim kingdom’s religious police ensuring the rules are enforced.


“Unlawful mixing between sexes leads to the arrest of the violators and criminal charges,” political scientist Elham Manea writes for Deutche Welle.

Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, especially with regards to protecting women, has often been called into question.

Although women’s rights have been incrementally extended in recent years – they were allowed to vote in municipal elections for the first time last year – their actions are still severely restricted.

In a country where a woman cannot even open a bank account without her husband’s permission, here are several other things they are still unable to do:

Women have been elected to municipal councils in Saudi Arabia for the first time, in ballots held on Saturday. At least 18 women from very different parts of the country have been elected, according to Al Jazeera.

The elections were the first time women were allowed to stand for office or vote, after a ban was lifted by King Abdullah shortly before his death last year.

Officials said that about 130,000 women had registered to vote in what was only the third time Saudis of either gender have gone to the polls in the country’s history.

The vote is being hailed as a landmark for the ultra-conservative kingdom, which has come under increasing criticism for its human rights record. While welcoming the news, rights groups reiterated their objections to other restrictions imposed on women, including a driving ban.

The vote may not have been perfect, said Hala Aldosari on Al Jazeera, but “in the end, building awareness through engagement, rather than through segregation and isolation, is a far more effective policy”.

In a country where a woman cannot even open a bank account without her husband’s permission, here are several other things women in the Muslim kingdom are still unable to do:

1. Go anywhere without a chaperone

Saudi women need to be accompanied by a male guardian known as a ‘mahram’ whenever they leave the house. The guardian is often a male relative and will accompany women on all of their errands, including shopping trips and visits to the doctor.

Such practices are rooted in “conservative traditions and religious views that hold giving freedom of movement to women would make them vulnerable to sins,” according to The Guardian.

In one extreme case, a teenager reported that she had been gang-raped, but because she was not with a mahram when it occurred, she was punished by the court. The victim was given more lashes than one of her alleged rapists received, the Washington Post reports.

The Saudi Arabian government recently announced that it was considering lifting restrictions on women that would allow them to travel without the approval of their relatives, but human rights groups warn the move is likely to be vetoed by senior clerics.

2. Drive a car

There is no official law that bans women from driving but deeply held religious beliefs prohibit it, with Saudi clerics arguing that female drivers “undermine social values”.

In 2011, a group of Saudi women organised the “Women2Drive” campaign that encouraged women to disregard the laws and post images and videos of themselves driving on social media to raise awareness of the issue in an attempt to force change. It was not a major success.

Saudi journalist Talal Alharbi says women should be allowed to drive but only to take their children to school or a family member to hospital. “Women should accept simple things”, he writes for Arab News. “This is a wise thing women could do at this stage. Being stubborn won’t support their cause.”

3. Wear clothes or make-up that “show off their beauty”

The dress code for women is governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law and is enforced to varying degrees across the country. The majority of women are forced to wear an abaya – a long black cloak – and a head scarf. The face does not necessarily need to be covered, “much to the chagrin of some hardliners,” says The Economist. But this does not stop the religious police from harassing women for exposing too much flesh or wearing too much makeup.

The dress code was extended to all female television presenters earlier this year. The king’s advisory body, the Shoura Council, ruled that the women should wear “modest” clothes that do not “show off their beauty”, according to Arab News.

4. Interact with men

Women are required to limit the amount of time spent with men they are not related to. The majority of public buildings including offices, banks and universities have separate entrances for men and women, the Daily Telegraph reports. Public transportation, parks, beaches and amusement parks are also segregated in most parts of the country. Unlawful mixing will lead to criminal


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