According to Furnham (2003, p. 23), there is an overwhelming empirical evidence to prove that social, economic, and political inequalities exist in the Saudi Arabia society between men and women.This is typical of many societies around the world, where men are givenmore priority by the society’s patriarchal systems. Researches done on the status of women in Saudi Arabia have revealed a strong connection between socio-economic activities within a given society and the existence of inequalities within the country. In particular, sexuality represents a major cause of health inequalities even in the societies where educational levels andoccupational activities seem to have stabilized. For instance, Iqbal (2001, p. 45) has observed that the best point to explain the existence of inequalities, such as in health care and acquisition of equal opportunities between men and women in Arabic world and in Saudi Arabia, in particular, rests in the sexual differences among people within the same society.He argues that it has become more evident with the increasing number of people, who access information about the status of the special groups in their society, when compared to other societies in other countries. Different countries and international organizations have taken it upon themselves to address the existence of social and economic inequalities. They also address promotional issues by providing information through international forums. Policy makers are putting the issue on the top of their agendas and bringing women at the center of discussion, so that they can contribute to the addressing of their social and political status in their country. According to Montgomery (2010) and Noxolo & Raghuram (2009, p. 13), the recent plummeting gap in inequality indicators in Saudi Arabia is a result of a combination of social-economic changes in the lives of men and women initiated by the country’s leadership, and an increasing inquiry in the usually oversimplified issues surrounding women and girls in Saudi Arabia by international human rights organizations.The researcher in this paper discusses the current status of women in Saudi Arabia highlighting the milestones already achieved by women in the country, and the status they want to achieve in future.
According to Ramady (2010, p. 34), women in Saudi Arabia have the attained notable milestones in education with tremendous increases in the number of women, who can read and write. Generally, the government of Saudi Arabia has provided a number of incentives to women and girls in the country, such as supporting girls in colleges. Women are given incentives in the country, and those outside the country through scholarships andother means of financial support. When compared to other countries with similar cultural and religious practices, such as Saudi Arabia, statistics indicate that there are more women in the universities in Saudi Arabia than there are in those countries. Even though there are still obstacles in accessing employment opportunities on the equal scales with men, women in Saudi Arabia have attained greater improvement in the possession of relevant information with regard to their rights, and a continued improvement of their social and maternal status (Hossain, 2012, p. 11). It is not a requirement for women to have a male guardian for them to access facilities, such as loans from the banks, or to appear in public places. Recently, there are efforts from the human rights groups to repeal the law that outlaws women from driving cars in the country (Mitchell, 2009, p. 19; Markovic, 2007, p.36). Nevertheless, this number is not reflected in the available employment in the government institutions, as women compose only less than 20% of the entire workforce. This therefore, means that more educated women in the Saudi Arabia cannot access employment opportunities. According to Friend and Jenkins (2012, p. 7), the reason for this disparity in the job opportunities is mainly traditional, cultural, and religious practices that have established discrimination and segregation against women. Even though the heavily conservative society perpetuates the practice, where men consider giving opportunities to women, as a form of indecency, things are looking clear for women in the country. Basing on the fact that fundamental conservatives in the country currently show the willingness to have dialogue with women right activists in the country (Gaad, 2010, p. 23). The promotion of the existing inequality in the leadership and decision-making in the country is through the practices and values that prohibit women from making any progress in terms of development. Evidently, the number of women who can engage in the development of the country is high. However, their engagement in the development of the country has stagnatedthe conservative society is not willing to give opportunities for women to offer their contributions in the development of the country (Nyland, Ramia & Sawir, 2005, p. 56; Povey & Rostami-Povey, 2012, p. 78).
According to the United Nations report (2010, p. 1), there are programs supportedby several international organizations including the UNDP to empower women and bring the society to the recognition that the Saudi woman has much to offer to her society and nation in terms of providing human resources and expertise in the various fields of development (Griffiths, 2011, p. 22). Women can also effectively engage in business activities instead of possessingspecifically reserved jobs for women. Such jobs, therefore, deprive women of their opportunity to participate in the making of important political decisions that the country takes. For instance, through funds, such as the Prince Sultan Fund, women are able to access micro-credit finances to start their own businesses after going through business incubators, where they are taughton how to start and run their own businesses (Moghadam, 2003, p. 21). Women in Saudi Arabia are also encouraged to be entrepreneurs in different areas, so that they can produce greater economic empowerment to other women employed in their businesses. The collective approaches implementedthrough the government and the international organizations, which support both materially and financially every activity that is aimed at achieving equality in the country between men and women.
Health inequalities border on the issues surrounding gender and sexuality. On the one hand health experts andgovernments in Saudi Arabia have in recent times focused on women by providing health systems that allow them to access health services easily, as compared to previous days (Charrad, 2007, p. 16; Festinger, 1997, p. 53). However, there is a need to continue with the plans to address the socio-economic differences evident between men and women in educational level, occupation, and general income together with changing sexual orientation and preferences. Such issues have forced health stakeholders back to the drawing board amid widening gap in health inequalities. Studies conducted in the country indicated that just like women, men were susceptible to health inequalities owing to their sexual orientation or other social economic factors like their educational level or their annual income. This cuts across genders and ages (Bryan, 2012, p. 22; Fatany, 2007, p. 87). Moreover, lesbian women in Saudi Arabia are not only faced with cultural and religious obstacles but alsohealth challenges for lack of health facilities in the country to support their needs. They are, thus, exposed to health inequalities because of their sexual orientation and a general lack of information on how to access health services in their countries. Health inequalities are also evidenced in the differences in life expectancy between men and women and also amongdifferent socio-economic groups with people in low income levels. As a result, statistics indicates that there is an increase in the health inequalities indicators among men with low income, as compared to women in the same level of income. This is an interesting phenomenon that calls for attention from health services providers and implies that sexuality plays an important role, concerningaccess to health services for people of different sexes (Mahmood, 2005, p. 45; Moghadam, 2003, p. 11).
Bhabha (2006, p. 6) argues that the influence of social, cultural, religious, and environmental factors depends on the intensity and the surrounding environment, which the person stays in; therefore, making it even more difficult to determine how exactly such factors affect the sexual orientation of a person. However, given the variety of preferences in the sexual orientation amongst people even of the same characteristics and upbringing, it is not easy to pinpoint a given causative factor, because factors that lead to the development of a particular sexual orientation change from one group of people to another. Some of the identified factors are averages of the presumed causes of sexual orientation amongst women and girls in Saudi Arabia(Lunenburg & Ornstein, 2011, p. 15).
Generally, the status of women in Saudi Arabia can be said to have improved in relation to what it was in 2002. It is possible for women to access services and opportunities that were only a dream in 2002. The government has also shown the willingness to engage women in the development of social and economic systems in the country by requiring the country’s companies to employ a certain percentage of women, instead of only depending on expatriates as workers. Even though the companies have indicated difficulty in implementing the requirements, it is evident that more businesses are showing the willingness to include women in their plans. Moreover, the government has also allowed women to participate in politics at the county level, and it expects that the number of women willgo up to the national level where women will have as equal rights as their male counterparts to participate in politics and vie for elective posts.