Let's not kid ourselves about what life is like for women in Saudi Arabia.

This week US President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump and adviser Ivanka Trump have met with Saudi Arabia’s leaders.

It’s been a cordial affair – filled with photo opportunities, embracing of customs, and talk of $100 million donations to women’s empowerment funds and progress on women’s rights.

Ivanka Trump was sitting with men as her father received an honour - a stark contrast to the segregation most of the country's citizens live in. (Image via Getty.)

"Saudi Arabia’s progress, especially in recent years, is very encouraging but there’s still a lot of work to be done and freedoms and opportunities to continue to fight for," Ivanka said during a women's roundtable, while her father spoke with Arab leaders in another room.


"The stories of Saudi women, such as yourselves, catalysing change, inspire me to believe in the possibility of global women’s empowerment."

While Ivanka's words are accurate - Saudi Arabia has been making legislative changes to give women greater rights - let's be clear that this is "progress" from a society that still fundamentally disadvantages women.

Saudi Arabia may have recently given women the right to vote and run for office and has made moves towards dismantling its guardianship laws, but let's reflect on what life is really like for Saudi women.

For starters, women are not permitted to drive. That is, they can't get licences and therefore are denied from using the most flexible mode of transportation available. A journalist who tweeted against this law and criticised religious authorities, Alaa Brinji, was jailed for five years in March 2016.

We are talking about a country that harshly punishes "crimes" such as insulting the rulers, inciting public opinion, and where adultery is punishable by stoning to death.

Ivanka and husbund Jared Kushner on their way to a ceremony where Donald trump was honoured. (Image via Getty.)

Currently, women - adult women - must obtain permission from a male guardian, who is usually their father, husband, brother or even their son, in order to travel within or outside of the country, according to the Human Right's Watch 2017 report.

They also require permission from their guardian to marry or exit prison and will find difficulty trying to rent an apartment or file legal claims without a male relative's help. Women may also need their guardian's consent to work or access healthcare.

All of this adds to a culture where women are seen as second-class citizens and their freedoms are restricted by the wills of men. It's no wonder human rights organisation Freedom House ranked Saudi Arabia as the 10th worst nation in the world on political and civil rights.

And yes, thankfully, we are starting to see small changes to these systems.

Earlier this month, the country's ruler, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, announced steps towards loosening the rules of the country's guardianship laws, which will be pivotal in dismantling sexism and female disadvantage.

But the 'relaxing' of these laws needs to be an outright abolishment.


Because there's still so much that needs to be done for Saudi women.

Listen: In Australia we're still cracking glass ceilings.

Dressing modestly is not a choice for either sex, but for women, it's still a punishable offence to be seen without a hijab (headscarf) or abaya (robe-like dress) in public. In December 2016, Malak al-Shehri, tweeted a photo of herself on the street without the coverings and was subsequently arrested for "violations of general morals".

Women could only vote or run for office for the first time in the December 2015 elections, following a royal decree from the late King Abdullah in 2011. The result was 38 women elected or appointed to councils, equating to about one per cent of 3,159 members across the country. However, the women elected to these positions must converse with their colleagues via video link while they sit in separate rooms.

Malak al-Shehri was arrested after posting this photo. (Image via Twitter.)

There's no doubt that there has been "progress" in Saudi Arabia. However, while Ivanka Trump acknowledged efforts made in recent years towards women's empowerment, her saccharine words don't fully reflect how deeply this female powerlessness and structural sexism runs in the country.

The "possibility of global women’s empowerment" is a real one - but not without Saudi Arabia making monumental, revolutionary changes.

So let's look beyond the glossy photo opportunities and polite chats in front of the media.

Let's not kid ourselves about what life is really like for Saudi women.