Women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to drive for the first time in the country’s history, thanks to a decree issued by King Salman. Although women were not technically banned from driving under Saudi law, local authorities consistently refused to issue women with a driving licence, resulting in a de facto ban. Many Islamic scholars justified the ban on the grounds that allowing women the means to travel without supervision would inevitably mean contact with unrelated men, and thus would undermine the country’s strict principles of gender segregation.
After years of lobbying by women’s rights activists, King Salman has now said that local authorities must be prepared to issue female applicants driving licences within 30 days. The royal decree came days after a senior cleric was banned from preaching after claiming that women should not drive because their brains were the quarter the size of a man’s when they were distracted by shopping.
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, especially with regards to protecting women, has often been called into question.
Although women’s rights have been incrementally extended in recent years – for instance, they were allowed to vote and stand as candidates in municipal elections for the first time in 2015 – their public behaviour is still severely restricted. Here are six things women in Saudi Arabia are unable to do:
Make major decisions without male permission
With the driving ban victory still fresh, Saudi women’s rights activists are eyeing up the next hurdle – dismantling the kingdom’s guardianship system, which Human Rights Watch has called “the most significant impediment to realising women’s rights in the country“.
All women in the kingdom are considered to have a male “wali” – an official guardian, typically a father, brother, uncle or husband.
Although guardianship is not enshrined in written law, government officials, courts, businesses and individual Saudis generally act in accordance with it, meaning that, in practice, women need their guardian’s consent for any major activity, including travelling, obtaining a passport, getting married or divorced and signing contracts.
In May 2017, activists won a small but significant victory when King Salman issued an order specifying that women did not need permission from their male guardian for some activities, including entering university, taking a job and undergoing surgery.
Campaigner Maha Akeel said the decision “opens the door for discussion on the guardian system”, Metro reports.
Women’s rights groups in the country are now lobbying for the end of guardianship in Saudi society, often using the social media hashtag “#IAmMyOwnGuardian”.
Wear clothes or make-up that ”show off their beauty“
The dress code for women is governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law and is enforced to varying degrees across the country. The majority of women wear an abaya – a long cloak – and a head scarf. The face does not necessarily need to be covered, ”much to the chagrin of some hardliners“, says The Economist. But this does not stop the religious police from harassing women for exposing what they consider to be too much flesh or wearing too much make-up.
Earlier this year, a prominent cleric called for even more modesty, urging the nation’s “daughters” to avoid “any abaya that has any decorations… No embellishment, no slits, no openings”.
Two weeks later, a video circulated on social media showing an anonymous Saudi woman walking around a deserted fort north of Riyadh wearing a miniskirt, in seeming defiance of such strict regulations on women’s clothing.
The six-second clip sparked a heated debate in the country, with conservatives demanding her arrest pitted against reformers applauding her bravery. The woman was summoned for questioning by police, but later released without charge.
Interact with men
Women are required to limit the amount of time spent with men to whom they are not related. The majority of public buildings, including offices, banks and universities, have separate entrances for the different sexes, the Daily Telegraph reports. Public transportation, parks, beaches and amusement parks are also segregated in most parts of the country. Unlawful mixing will lead to criminal charges being brought against both parties, but women typically face harsher punishment.
Go for a swim
Women are not allowed to use public swimming pools available to men and can swim only in private ones or female-only gyms and spas. Reuters editor Arlene Getz describes her experience of trying to use the gym and pool at an upmarket Riyadh hotel: ”As a woman, I wasn’t even allowed to look at them (‘there are men in swimsuits there,’ a hotel staffer told me with horror) – let alone use them.“
Compete freely in sports
Last year, Saudi Arabia proposed hosting an Olympic Games without women. ”Our society can be very conservative,“ said Prince Fahad bin Jalawi al-Saud, a consultant to the Saudi Olympic Committee. ”It has a hard time accepting that women can compete in sports.“
When Saudi Arabia sent female athletes to the Olympics for the first time, at London 2012, hardline clerics denounced the two competitors as ”prostitutes“. The women also had to be accompanied by a male guardian and cover their hair.
However, in September 2017, Saudi Arabia’s national stadium welcomed its first ever female spectators. Women were assigned their own section in the normally male-only venue to watch celebrations marking the anniversary of the founding of Saudi Arabia.
Try on clothes when shopping
”The mere thought of a disrobed woman behind a dressing-room door is apparently too much for men to handle,“ says Vanity Fair writer Maureen Dowd in A Girl’s Guide to Saudi Arabia.
Other more unusual restrictions on women’s lives include entering a cemetery and reading an uncensored fashion magazine.
However, adds Dowd, everything in Saudi Arabia ”operates on a sliding scale, depending on who you are, whom you know, whom you ask, whom you’re with, and where you are“.
But things are slowly beginning to modernise. ”Saudi Arabia is the world’s most gender-segregated nation, but amid changes now under way, multiple generations of women are debating how to be truly modern and truly Saudi,“ says National Geographic.
A transformation is indeed under way, confirms royal adviser Hanan Al-Ahmadi, ”but we need to be able to create this change gradually and maintain our identity“.