Abomination and progress: A schizophrenic Saudi timeline

When I read Katherine Zoepf’s article about emerging legal awareness among Saudi women, I found myself imagining a timeline of events. Then I realized I could create one pretty easily with Hypothesis:

A timeline of events noted in Sisters in Law: Saudi women are beginning to know their rights


In 2004, Saudi Arabia introduced reforms allowing women’s colleges and universities to offer degree programs in law.

In 2004, she was a student in the human-resources department at King Abdulaziz University, in Jeddah, when the university announced that it would be opening a degree program in law for female students. It was the first such program in the kingdom, and Zahran immediately switched her concentration to law.


The first female law students graduated in 2008, but, for several years after that, they were prohibited from appearing in court.

In 2008, King Abdullah, who died last January, appalled some of his subjects when he announced that the Riyadh University for Women would be renamed Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University, in memory of a favorite aunt.

The fact that women couldn’t obtain law licenses wasn’t a source of anxiety for Zahran and her classmates, but by 2008, when she graduated, the justice ministry still hadn’t indicated that it would begin licensing female lawyers.


Sorcery is considered such a grave concern that, in 2009, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice created a specially trained unit to conduct witchcraft investigations.


In 2011, when Mohra Ferak entered the law department at Dar Al-Hekma, her immediate family was supportive, but others were horrified. People said, “Are you serious?”


In 2013, law licenses were granted to four women, including Bayan Mahmoud Zahran.

Since 2013, women have been allowed to ride bicycles, but only in designated parks and recreation areas, chaperoned by a close male relative.

In supermarkets, which have employed women since 2013, low partitions suffice, because semi-public spaces are easily monitored by members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the kingdom’s religious police.


The lecturer, Bayan Mahmoud Zahran, a thirty-year-old Jeddah attorney who, in January, 2014, became the first Saudi woman to open a law firm.

The advent, in 2014, of car services that can be requested through mobile apps has given women a freedom of movement that had seemed impossible just months earlier.


The first lecture in the series, which Ferak called Hawa’a’s Rights (Hawa’a is the Arabic version of the name Eve), was publicized on Twitter and took place on the evening of April 15th.

The second Hawa’a’s Rights lecture, on April 26th, addressed personal-status law, the category of Saudi law that governs marriage, divorce, guardianship, and inheritance.

In early October, at the end of the Islamic calendar year, the Saudi justice ministry announced that in the past twelve months there had been a forty-eight-per-cent increase in cases of khula, divorces initiated by women.

In November, in an adultery case, a married woman was sentenced to death by stoning; her unmarried male partner received a hundred lashes.

Today, several thousand Saudi women hold law degrees, and sixty-seven are licensed to practice, according to justice-ministry figures released at the end of November.

To make this timeline I started by annotating the article in a particular way. All the dates of interest were in the 2000s, so I did an in-browser search for 20 which highlighted all the occurrences of 2004, 2008, 2011, etc. I selected those sentences and made Hypothesis annotations with the tags 20xx, Women, and Saudi Arabia. For dates in 2015, I repeated this exercise using search for names of months.

You can see the annotations in context here, and as extracts here. A light massage of that data yielded the timeline.

It’s a weirdly schizophrenic mix of despair and hope, abomination and progress. One the one hand, there’s still stoning.

On the other hand, there’s growing awareness of legal rights — if not yet a strong movement to expand them. And there’s dramatic new mobility thanks to Uber.

Will the better angels of our nature prevail? If we project this timeline into the future, I’m betting that we’ll see less witchcraft and stoning, more freedom and mobility.

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One thought on “Abomination and progress: A schizophrenic Saudi timeline

  1. Lots of tagging. That’s how I do annotation in hypothes.is. Just imagined the Storify style where you can move individual digital objects up and down in the timeline. Would be a beautiful thing for reconstructing articles, for analysis as well.

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