In the beginning, there was blood sacrifice — the taking of a woman’s life to build the kingdom of god. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab, Saudi Arabia’s founding ideologue, had in 1744 begun a war against blasphemy and debauchery in the small town of al-Uyayna. He cut down trees considered holy by local tribes, destroyed shrines, and punished men who visited the tombs of saints.
Then, the chronicler Hussein ibn Ghannam recorded, “an adulteress came to him and admitted her sin”. “…He gave her several days to reconsider her confession. She remained defiant.” But the woman’s murder was a step too far — the ruler of Bani Khalid tribe, Sulayman al-Muhammad, expelled Ibn al-Wahhab from al-Uyayna. He fled to Deriyya, helped by a pious woman who introduced him to its ruler. The man who would give the preacher political power was Muhammad Ibn al-Saud, founding ruler of Saudi Arabia.
King Salman ibn Abdulaziz al-Saud made a dramatic decision this September to allow Saudi women to drive, unescorted by a male guardian, and banned from preaching a cleric who said women must not drive because their brains shrank to a quarter the size of men’s when they went shopping. Nudged by Crown Prince Muhammad ibn Salman, the King also allowed women to enter a sports stadium for the first time, and there are plans to let them hold high bureaucratic office.
However, Saudi Arabia still forces women who have fled abusive families to return — sometimes using intelligence agents to conduct kidnappings as far away as Manila and Istanbul. Saudi women cannot marry, work, study, travel or seek healthcare without the consent of male guardians. In 2016, the US State Department noted that they “continued to face significant discrimination under law and custom, and many remained uninformed about their rights”.
From the early 1930s, as the Saudi order began to consolidate into what can be recognised as a modern nation, local traditions and control over women began to be replaced by state control. “Women became important not only for the physical reproduction of the new pious nation”, social anthropologist Madawi al-Rasheed wrote, “but also as the repository of its morality, ethics, and religious purity. This required that they should then be controlled lest they undermine national piety”.
In practice, this meant the regulation of women’s lives — control over who they could marry, their recourse to legal rights and education — devolved to clerical institutions, which played an ever greater role in shaping the Saudi state.
The new order drew extensively on the mores of the premodern elite. The Englishwomen Lady Anne Blunt and Gertrude Bell, who travelled in the Najd region in the 19th century, recorded elite women from the oasis of Hail proudly saying they made only two journeys in their lives — one to their husband’s home, the other to the grave. The long abayas they wore were supposed to not just veil, but also erase their footprints in the sand.
In contrast, Bedouin tribal women travelled to gather fodder and firewood, complementing family income by producing and selling craftwork, and even encouraging the men through songs and poems as they prepared to go for raids. In 19th century photographs, many posed without a veil.
The state’s official ideology, Wahabiyya, was not just religious doctrine — it was religious nationalism, seeking to compress a diverse, layered society into a monolithic identity. This impulse was not fundamentally different from other modernising ideologies, like Arab nationalism: if in some cases, the liberation of women was a means to push back against the clerical right, in Saudi Arabia, oppression was used to cement these links.
In A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics and Religion in Saudi Arabia, al-Madawi has argued that “women become boundary markers that visibly and structurally distinguish this pious nation from other ungodly polities. Hence, the obsession with their bodies, appearance, segregation, purity, and sexuality”.
From the 1960s, however, the Saudi state began opening the doors of primary education to women. Writers Muhammad Awad and Ahmad Sibai argued that educated women were needed to produce the men the emerging nation needed. In 1970, the kingdom opened its first university for women. Faisal ibn Abdulaziz al-Saud, king from 1964 to 1975, is credited with introducing reforms, nudged by his progressive wife, Iffat.
The reforms, however, encountered bitter resistance from clerics — and could only be pushed forward by ceding space for greater control over women’s lives, and controlling their right to make crucial decisions independently of men. In 1977, the 19-year-old Princess Mishaal bint Fahd, grand-daughter of then-king Khalid ibn Abdulaziz al-Saud’s brother Muhammad ibn Abdulaziz, was famously executed in public for seeking to elope with her lover, the son of a Saudi diplomat. In 1979, religious radicals seized the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, declaring Muhammad al-Qahtani the Mahdi, or redeemer of Islam, who had arrived to free Saudi Arabia from its corrupt, oil-rich monarchy. In need of religious legitimacy, the Saudi state rolled back its cautious liberalisation of women.
The wheel turned after 9/11, with King Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz al-Saud ushering in a kind of Saudi “state feminism”. Women were for the first time given official identification, acknowledging their status as citizens. Like others in the ruling configuration, King Abdullah saw women as potential allies against Islamists threatening to overwhelm Saudi Arabia and evict the monarchy.
King Abdullah’s impulses have steadily strengthened — in 2015, women were allowed to stand in municipal elections, and the power of the religious police slowly diminished. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has also seen the emergence of a small cohort of women entrepreneurs and executives; the kingdom’s liberalisers argue that increasing women’s participation in the workforce is essential to securing its post-oil future.
Fundamental reform, though, is unlikely, for the monarchy’s own power, and its position as guardians of Islam, is contingent on clerical support. Even as Saudi women celebrate their success in securing the right to drive, they know more fundamental gains could take years of bitter struggle.