Religion, Culture, and Legal Reform in Saudi Arabia

The guardianship system in Saudi Arabia consisted of a set of legal norms that, until recently, restricted women’s liberties. Previously, a woman needed the consent of her male guardian (wali al amr) to engage in basic exercises of autonomy such as obtaining a passport, traveling, and registering the birth of her child. The guardian would usually be a woman’s father or husband; however, he could even be her son. In 2019, heeding the calls for modernization in the Kingdom, the Council of Ministers put an end to the system. Currently, all women over the age of 21 do not need male guardians and are viewed as fully autonomous under the law. [1] The policy changed due to a shift in the understanding of the rights of women in Islam. Saudi Arabia is currently undergoing a process of disentangling patriarchal culture from  true religion. While Islam is the absolute foundation of the country, culture is merely relative and subject to change. This is particularly true of oppressive cultural practices. 

Prevailing Western thought asserts that religion must be entirely divorced from the state in order for society to be just and free. However, a close examination of theocracy shows that religious law and justice are not mutually exclusive; in fact, in some societies, justice is defined by and can only be attained through the pathways of religious understanding. This article will analyze how religion functions in a theocracy, through the case of the recently repealed guardianship law in Saudi Arabia. Institutionalized religion can be analyzed on three levels: the validity of a religious society, the difference between religious knowledge and religion as such, and the relationship between religion and culture. 

Religious knowledge is the human interpretation of religious scripture by disciples. This understanding is tainted by the subjective perspectives of individuals, groups, cultures, or zeitgeists of a particular period. Therefore, these religious notions should not be regarded as absolute. Contrastingly, religion as such is the unalterable will of God. It transcends all contexts and remains consistent. While the theoretical distinction between these aspects of religion is clear, in practice the line between them is often ambiguous. 

In the case of the guardianship law, Saudi clerics claimed that the law was based on religion as such, rather than a normative interpretation of religion; however, this was not true. They cite a Qur’anic verse that they interpreted to mean that, “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more strength than the other, and because they support them from their means.” [2] This translation presents the notion that God has endowed men with greater faculties which they are to employ to guide women. However, in the original Arabic, the meaning of this verse is much more obscure. Professor Azizah Al-Hibri, a scholar of Islamic feminism, contends that the more accurate translation of the verse is that, “Men are the advisors and guides of women in circumstances where God has given preferred distinctions to them over others and in circumstances where they spend of their own money [to support them].” [3] The distinction between the translations is two-fold. First, in the former men are “protectors”; however, in the latter men are “advisors”. The protective role assigned to men by the guardianship law has been its principal source of female oppression. The advisory role is a responsibility assigned to men that is not meant to encroach upon female autonomy. Second, the latter interpretation stipulates that a man would only be assigned the role of an advisor in cases where the woman is dependent on him and in situations where “God has given preferred distinctions to” him. Professor Al-Hibri argues that the advisory role of a man to a woman would manifest in the role of a father advising his daughter, specifically when she chooses a husband. However, the daughter would not have to submit to the will of her father. [4] This more accurate interpretation elucidates how previous understandings were tainted by social patriarchy. In the application of religion in society, injustices are often a function of wider social issues and not the religion itself. While it is often challenging to disentangle social bias from religious knowledge, it must be done to ensure that religion as such is protected. This shielding of religion from oppressive culture allows for theocracies to be true bastions of faith. 

The principle function of a theocracy is to uphold religion; therefore, culture cannot be regarded as a force of equal standing. Religion and culture are often perceived by secular thought as synonymous and of equal importance (or lack thereof ). However, the former, in its true sense, must be held to a higher degree of importance than the latter in a religious society. Moreover, religion must be employed to evaluate the legitimacy of cultural practices. Susan Moller Okin, a prominent liberal philosopher, in her analysis of women’s rights as they are affected by culture, claims that, “…most cultures have as one of their principal aims the control of women by men. Consider for example, the founding myths of Greek and Roman antiquity, and of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: they are rife with attempts to justify the control and subordination of women.” [5] Okin’s conclusion presents a stark analytical flaw: she equates culture to religion. This assessment sets a precedent that would be fundamentally oppressive to women in theocratic societies.

The guardianship law in Saudi Arabia was a function of culture, not religion. Saudi Arabian culture is patriarchal and in some cases does oppress women. However, the Islamic faith does not oppress women; in fact, the thrust of the religion is the equality of all before God. [6] Aside from the fact that Okin incorrectly characterized Islam, she would not make the distinction between Saudi culture and Islam. If the notion that culture and religion are one and of the same were to be applied to a theocratic society this would endow culture and cultural interpretations of religion with the same command as divine authority. In a theocracy, to say that culture is religion is to say that it is infallible. This would inhibit the vital process of disentangling culture from religion. Therefore, oppressive cultural practices would be perpetuated because religion would no longer be a superior framework used to evaluate the validity of culture. Okin would strip Saudi society of the mechanism (the process of disentangling culture from religion) that liberated Saudi women from oppressive culture. Okin intended for her rejection of religion and culture on equal bases to be a force for liberating women. However, her theory, when applied to a theocratic society, would only serve to further the subjugation of women. This reveals how external, secular thought cannot be applied to religious societies as they are often forces for oppression, not liberation. 

Legal reform in Saudi Arabia has resulted in tangible improvements in women’s employment opportunities. The World Bank, in their report “Women, Business, and the Law 2020,” stated that Saudi Arabia was the top reformer of the year. [7] Repealing the guardianship system established that a Saudi woman has the same rights to economic and literal mobility as a Saudi man. The latest labor market survey shows that,“women’s participation rose to 31.3 percent in the third quarter of 2020, up from 26 percent at the end of 2019.” [8] This substantial improvement occurred  despite the economic challenges posed by the pandemic. Saudi Arabia has now already surpassed its goal of 30 percent women’s labor force participation by 2030. The country is displaying that incremental, modernizing legal reforms are compatible with a religious society and lead to substantial improvements in social welfare. 

The fact that a society is religious does not preclude social progress or development. Saudi Arabia can look internally to its own theological basis to usher in reform. Religion is a steward of social change in that it provides a framework through which the status quo can be evaluated and judged. In this way, religion functions as a source of empowerment: only in a religious society can one demand the true extent of their religious rights. In Saudi Arabia religion has not been an oppressive force, culture has. It is through religion, more specifically through extracting religion as such from the abstractions of culture, that women have been liberated from domineering forces. These rights were not bestowed upon women by the government; rather, the rights that have always been outlined for them in Islam were recognized. Ending the guardianship law in Saudi Arabia did not mean that the country was becoming secular or Western; rather, Saudi Arabia became a more truly Islamic country. 


[1] Wagtendonk, Anya van. “Saudi Arabia Changed Its Guardianship Laws, but Activists Who Fought Them Remain Imprisoned.” Vox, Vox, 3 Aug. 2019, employment-mbs.

[2] Ali, Abdullah Yusuf. The Holy Quran. Idara Impex, 2012.

[3] Ali,  The Holy Quran.

[4] Al-Hibri, Azizah Y. An Introduction to Muslim Women’s Rights. 2000, %99s-Rights.pdf. 

[5] Okin, Susan Moller., et al. Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Princeton University Press, 2011.

[6] Al-Hibri, An Introduction to Muslim Women’s Rights.

[7] “Saudi Women Rising up in Business in Line with Vision 2030.” World Bank, ine-with-vision-2030. 

[8]Khojji, Zaynab. “Saudi Arabia’s Rising Female Labor Force Defies Global Pandemic Trend.” Arab News, Arabnews, 7 Mar. 2021,