All the Things Women Are Banned From Doing Around the World

Studying mining! Divorcing! Straddling a motorbike!
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Saudi Arabia has announced that it will lift its ban on women driving, which UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wrote was “an important step in the right direction.” But Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go—and the list of what women are prevented from doing in many countries is long.

Saudi Arabia’s extremist rules dictating women’s rights make it one of the most unequal countries in the world. Gender-based restrictions are everywhere, and in the court system, a man’s testimony is worth that of two women. As the BBC points out in their article on the relaxing of the driving ban (which the government doesn’t have to implement until next June), women in Saudi Arabia still need a man’s permission to do the following:

  • Applying for passports
  • Travelling abroad
  • Getting married
  • Opening a bank account
  • Starting certain businesses
  • Getting elective surgery
  • Leaving prison

While the driving ban is a good place to start, I’m sure that many Saudi Arabian women would also appreciate the opportunity to apply for a passport or choose to get surgery without needing to ask a dude first. It’s hard for me to even look at this list without a red haze of fury descending over my vision, but Saudi Arabia’s strict nature is well-established. What surprised me in the BBC’s article was their listing of further bans worldwide.

The BBC reports that China has a ban on women studying mining, tunnel engineering, navigation, and similar subjects. China claims the ban was “made out of respect for women’s safety,” but this sounds more like a paltry excuse to limit women’s access to traditionally male-dominated fields. Maybe a brilliant Chinese female tunnel engineer might invent processes that would make conditions safer for everyone? Just a thought!

Meanwhile in Russia, the pearl-clutching over women’s “safety” continues, with “a list of jobs women are not allowed to do, including carpentry, firefighting, train driving and captaining boats.” Again, these are male-dominated fields keeping women out because it’s just too, too dangerous for a little lady to undertake. According to the BBC, there’s a loophole in the Russian restrictions that allow employers to hire women in these positions “if they can prove they have made conditions safe for women,” but you can bet how many of those institutions have gone out of their way to do so.

“In Israel, women cannot get a divorce without their husband’s permission as the system is ruled by religious courts,” notes the BBC. While I knew that this was the practice in Orthodox Judaism, I did not realize that the rule was country-wide. The Times of Israel explains: “As part of a system dating back to the Ottomans, Jews in Israel must marry and divorce through state rabbis, whose decisions are based on civil as well as Jewish law, or ‘halacha.’ Divorce is handled by regional rabbinical courts and the Supreme Rabbinical Court.”

And everyone on the Supreme Rabbinical Court is—you guessed it!—a man. While there’s some indication that changing public opinion and activism by feminist and religious groups is producing better results for women in the courtroom, this is still a preposterous requirement.

In Sudan, women who are caught wearing the scandalously “indecent” form of clothing known as pants are subject to up to 40 lashings. Villages in Gujarat, India banned girls and unmarried women from using cell phones. Another village has a ban on women calling husbands by their first names. And on and on and on and on.

This is so bonkers that I have to quote it in its entirety:

Women in one Indonesian city have been prohibited from straddling motorbikes when they ride as passengers behind men. The mayor of Lhokseumawe said women should sit side-saddle to save people’s “morals and behaviours”. The district previously also banned women from wearing tight trousers, saying these would be confiscated, cut up on the spot and replaced with a government-issue skirt wherever found.

Who will think of the people’s “morals and behaviors”? Who will save all the women injured when they fall off a goddamned motorbike sitting side-saddle? And yeah, when you’re slicing up women’s clothes on the spot and forcing them into a skirt that’s clearly about morality and not at all about social control. Sure, sure.

While these are some of the more widely known bans, there are innumerable local and traditional restrictions placed on what women are permitted to do with their own damn time, bodies, and clothing worldwide. And though we might be trending towards greater gender equality, for many that time will not come soon enough—and possibly never will.

Lest I get uppity here in my Americanness, it’s worth mentioning that strictures on the combat roles that women could play in the military changed only last year. And through the centuries, we’ve had legal restrictions here on everything from the amount of skin women were allowed to show in a bathing suit to serving on juries. Women couldn’t run in the Boston Marathon until 1972. They couldn’t train as astronauts until 1979. They couldn’t have their own credit cards without male supervision until 1974. All of these jaw-dropping limitations may seem like a long time ago, but they are well within our parents and some of our own lifetimes. My mother was banned from serving on a jury until all women were permitted in 1975, when she was 31 years old.

As for me, I still face a gender wage gap that pays women 78%-82% of what men earn on average, an ongoing battle to retain the most basic reproductive rights, and a culture war of sexism and toxic masculinity that saw a vastly qualified female candidate lose the Presidency to a fraudulent blowhard with no political experience and a taped admission of sexual assault. I have to end this article somewhere because if I were attempt to record every single thing women are banned from doing on planet Earth this will stretch longer than the Bible, which has its own thoughts on what women should and shouldn’t be doing.

I’m going to go buy a coffee with my unsupervised credit card while wearing some highly indecent pants and reflect on how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go.

(via The BBC, image: screengrab)

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Kaila Hale-Stern
Kaila Hale-Stern (she/her) is a content director, editor, and writer who has been working in digital media for more than fifteen years. She started at TMS in 2016. She loves to write about TV—especially science fiction, fantasy, and mystery shows—and movies, with an emphasis on Marvel. Talk to her about fandom, queer representation, and Captain Kirk. Kaila has written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.