Females set to benefit from many new freedoms, as ultra-conservative kingdom begins period of liberalization
For women in Saudi Arabia this year’s Ramadan will have added significance in light of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s recent reforms directly impacting on their lives. These range from granting Saudi women the right to an education and increasing their participation in the workforce, to allowing them to travel locally and drive a vehicle (beginning on June 24) without a male companion. It all amounts to a sea change in the way the ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim nation treats female citizens.
“Yesterday, the presence of Saudi women in society was bland; today, they are present in all forms of life,” Samar al-Mogren, a Saudi writer and activist, told The Media Line. “In the month of Ramadan, no doubt, many women will be taking intensive driving lessons.”
In addition, she explained, there will be great deals for those needing to replace their foreign licenses with Saudi ones, particularly before the national holiday of Eid al-Adha, a three-day celebration that ends the Ramadan fasting period.
“I thought that we would remain Saudi society’s weakest and we would have to fight extremism for a long time,” Al-Mogren explained, adding that Saudi women suffered for years because of religious intolerance. By contrast, she noted, nowadays many women visit public spaces with their faces uncovered.
“Before the new changes, people used to consider me an anomaly for not covering my face at malls.”
Moreover, Saudi Arabia will become a little less gloomy as women will be permitted to wear colorful dresses as opposed to traditional black garb. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice—a government agency that oversees the work of the religious police in the kingdom—used to dictate what colored clothing Saudi women could wear.
“The time of extremism has ended,” al-Mogren declared, “and the hardliners have returned to their burrows. I knew that change was coming,” she expounded to The Media Line, “because change is a natural yearning for human societies. But I never expected to witness and live it.”
Al-Mogren believes that this evolution is partially attributable to overseas travel by an increasing number of Saudis—not only men, but also women—which exposes them to more liberal cultures, whose principles are, to varying degrees, thereafter imported back home.
Fawziah Albakr, a sociology instructor at King Saud University, explained that bin Salman is determined to change the status of women by treating them as equal citizens. To do so first requires a total re-examination of the cultural norms and barriers that have long restricted Saudi women.
“I think families will be more relaxed in public due to the absence of religious police,” Albakr told The Media Line, before cautioning that Saudi women must still overcome many obstacles to achieve full rights. “Saudi society needs time to transform its values and change its behavior,” she said.
Albakr therefore urged Saudi women to be patient, as bin Salman’s reformist policies have yet to be fully implemented by government agencies. For example, Saudi females still must grapple with the issue of guardianship: that is, they cannot obtain a passport or travel abroad without permission from their male companion or relatives.
Despite its history of promoting repressive restrictions on women, the Saudi government has publicly committed itself to increasing the rate of female employment from 22 percent to 30%, a reform that requires making significant changes to the economy and legal system.
Enter Vision 2030, bin Salman’s plan to diversify both sectors while making the country less dependent on oil exports. An integral component of the strategy includes enhancing the role of women in society by allowing them to work across a large spectrum of industries, whereas in the past they were limited to certain fields such as education.
Shifa’a Abu Samra, a communications officer at the Jordan-based International Institute of Solidarity with Women, told The Media Line that Riyadh’s initiative marks a “quantum leap” in the state’s history and “a very good one.”
She believes that granting women additional freedoms will reflect positively on the entire Arab world. “Women must gain their basic rights. It is shameful that the whole world looks at Saudi women as if they live on a different planet.”