With Saudi Arabian women behind the wheel since Saturday to protest their country's refusal to grant driver's licenses to women, they’re challenging not only long-standing restriction, but also a the larger system of Saudi Arabian gender-based laws, some of the harshest in the world.
According to one measurement, though, there are actually several countries that rank lower on women;s rights than Saudi Arabia. The World Economic Forum, which publishes the preeminent ranking on gender gap issues, ranked Saudi Arabia 10th from the bottom in its 2013 report -- ahead of Mali, Morocco, Iran, Cote d’Ivoire, Mauritania, Syria, Chad, Pakistan and Yemen. Women’s rights abuses are by no means limited to North Africa, West Africa or the Middle East, though that’s where we tend to hear such stories most frequently.
“A lot of the most severe stuff comes out of legal or de facto guardianship systems,” said Rothna Begum, a researcher who tracks women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
But she adds that, especially in Saudi Arabia, “things are modernizing.”
Here are nine other remarkable legal restrictions against women, from Asia to Latin America:
1. India (some parts): Road safety rules don’t apply to women. In some states of India, women are excepted from safety rules that mandate motorcycle passengers wear helmets -- an exemption that kills or injures thousands each year. Women’s rights advocates have argued the exemption springs from a culture-wide devaluation of women’s lives. Supporters of the ban say they’re just trying to preserve women’s carefully styled hair and make-up -- which isn’t exactly a feminist response.
2. Yemen: A woman is considered only half a witness. That’s the policy on legal testimony in Yemen, where a woman is not, to quote a 2005 Freedom House report, “recognized as a full person before the court.” In general, a single woman’s testimony isn’t taken seriously unless it’s backed by a man’s testimony or concerns a place or situation where a man would not be. And women can’t testify at all in cases of adultery, libel, theft or sodomy.
3. Saudi Arabia and Vatican City: Women can’t vote... still. This is amazingly the case in Saudi Arabia, though a royal decree, issued in 2011, will let women vote in Saudi elections in 2015. Vatican City is the only other country that allows men, but not women, to vote.
4. Ecuador: Abortion is illegal, unless you’re an “idiot.” Begum says this is the policy in Ecuador, where abortions have long been outlawed for everyone but “idiots” and the “demented.” Politicians are considering a policy with the more politely worded term “mentally ill,” but that won’t change abortion’s legal status in Ecuador -- or, more importantly, the fact that the law is frequently used to criminalize miscarriages.
5. Saudi Arabia and Morocco: Rape victims can be charged with crimes. Many, many countries fail to protect the victims of rape, but some go a step further -- punishing women for leaving the house without a male companion, for being alone with an unrelated man, or for getting pregnant afterwards. The most infamous case may be Saudi Arabia’s “Qatif girl,” but a recent suicide in Morocco also made headlines -- 16-year-old Amina Filali killed herself after a judge forced her to marry her alleged rapist, in keeping with a policy that invalidates statutory rape charges if the parties marry.
6. Yemen: Women can’t leave the house without their husbands’ permission. Yemen, where this law remains in force, does allow for a few emergency exceptions, Begum says: if the woman must rush out to care for her ailing parents, for instance.
7. Saudi Arabia: Women can't drive. Read more about the ban and how women are challenging it here.
The good news? According to the World Economic Forum’s most recent gender gap report, equality has made “modest” gains in the Middle East. And Begum, of Human Rights Watch, says there’s lots of agitation for more change.
“Women in Saudi Arabia are highly educated and qualified,” she said. “They don’t want to be left in the dark.”