A young woman writes about the rise of women in Saudi Arabia.
By Hina Zahir Imam
Today, Saudi Arabia is not what it was one or two decades ago; this is surprising because nobody could have envisioned the change back then – the unspeakable, the unthinkable is becoming a reality. The repressed gender finally seems to be getting its space in society – her voice is being heard – her face is seen now. A revolution in women’s rights is happening in the Kingdom; women’s liberation has begun at a grassroots level, something, which was unimaginable before. This it is a huge step forward in Saudi Arabian dynamics.
The monarchy is moving towards a brighter future called KSA Vision 2030, aimed at loosening restrictions on social policies. They have realised it is only possible to go further if women’s potential is fully developed. KSA Vision 2030 is the country’s vision to reduce decades long dependency on oil (ever since the country’s formation, oil has been its most vital source of income), i.e. post-oil economic plans. This is obliging the kingdom to consider policies and development in arenas that have been neglected or simply paid no heed to previously. As need arises, various economic and social reforms are to be introduced in hopes of fostering a state-of-the-art society – of the youth, by the youth, for the youth. It is a paradigm imagined by an ambitious young Saudi to make up for the massive deficit, and to keep up with the global pace of socially progressive countries.
All these advancements happening now, which may seem too little, too late in a globalised setting, or by Western standards, are a huge step forward in Saudi Arabia’s case. The western media is not taking into consideration the culture and context in which these reforms are being made. Women are part and parcel of the country’s tomorrow and they are finally being given some long overdue recognition. To further elaborate on the strict culture and context, something that is not reflected upon in international discourse on Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah is an apt example. The late King supported the cause of women’s rights but in a discreet manner, taking cautious political measures in consideration of the orthodox exterior of the country, where conservative clerics and senior members of the ruling family have the power to oppose even minor changes.
In April 2017, a royal decree was issued allowing Saudi women to have greater access to job opportunities, higher education and healthcare among others things, without a guardian’s permission.
In 2011, King Abdullah, an advocate for women’s rights, as many called him, sowed the seed of progressivism by introducing reforms allowing women to play a greater role in society. During his reign, he built the first university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, for both sexes. By decree, women were permitted to run for Shura council elections (government advisory cabinet), and for the first time, vote in municipal elections. In 2012, women were given the right to represent Saudi Arabia in the Olympics, also for the first time. In 2016, the strict haya (moral) police, were stripped off their power to harass/question or arrest people.
The desire for reform very much existed during the King’s rule, however, a paradoxical balancing act of sorts had to be played. The king had to please the conservative clergy on one hand, whose support is crucial for the Saudi monarchy – going all the way back to a pact made between Ibn Saud, founding father of the country, and conservative cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, pioneer of the Wahhabi ideology – while at the same time leverage the demands of a young population. King Abdullah also eased previous restrictions on pursuing an education and employment, a change that encouraged thousands of women to participate in the workforce and to increase their visibility in the labour market, in the corporate sector, tertiary jobs (hospitality, retail) etc. It is interesting to note that many professions became more gender neutral during this time, instead of the limited available jobs that were once deemed suitable for women.
However, this development was not good news for everyone in the country. As a result, many expatriates were laid off to literally create vacancies for the sudden increase in the female candidates. One good example is of the lucrative Abaya industry, where a huge chunk of South Asian male workers, mostly of Bengali, Indian and Pakistani origins dominated the labour force with their skills. These workers ended up losing their jobs. Also, there appeared an influx of women workers in cosmetics and lingerie shops in malls, replacing salesmen who had worked for many years in these professions.
Another important step towards progression is the revocation of the male guardianship system. In April 2017, a royal decree was issued allowing Saudi women to have greater access to job opportunities, higher education and healthcare among others things, without a guardian’s permission. There are no specific laws barring women from these services, but some government officials require a male guardian’s (father’s, husband’s, brother’s) consent. Asking for permission from one’s ‘guardians’ is purely based on patriarchal norms and cultural sensibilities rather than the Islamic teachings or Sharia Law, which the country is based upon. Thus, this announcement by King Salman drew positive responses. It is a huge step towards equal rights in one of the most gender-segregated nations in the world.
This initiative is part of Saudi Arabia’s vision to employ more women in the workforce as it moves to modernise the economy and cut reliance on oil. Women can be their own guardians in the truest sense now; moving freely and applying for a passport to travel abroad – this was a huge obstacle previously because women belonging to conservative or broken families with absent fathers were unable to travel abroad or leave the country for good if they wanted to.
Whilst there has been a general applaud from local activists some remain skeptical, pointing out that it is still unclear in what circumstances women should or should not seek consent as the ban may be lifted only partially and might just be a ploy to satisfy the Human Rights Commission. Having said that, the country is undergoing a change on a national level that is difficult to dismiss. In addition, once the guardian law is lifted, and not just on paper, women can demand their rights and be backed by laws that support them.
Angela Merkel visited the kingdom this year to examine the progress being made in regard to gender equality. She noticed significant changes in the roles played by Saudi women compared to her visit in 2007. The German Chancellor’s visit was followed by Saudi Arabia being appointed to the UN Women Rights commission in late April this year . A decision that was met with backlash and severe condemnation by many, including human rights watchers who criticised the entry of the conservative kingdom to the committee.
It is clear that the country’s situation is in a state of conflict, wherein the burden of centuries old customs are still felt deeply and staunch patriarchs are in power; yet, there is also an opposing group forming- the youth, who are demanding change. For instance, many young Saudi women are not seen wearing the veil, letting go of an eons-old cultural norm. Or the transition from dark black to light-colored abayas; a subtle rebellion, nevertheless it’s sending out the message loud and clear. Driving is another barrier women have to face here, as Saudi Arabia is the only country where it is illegal for women to drive. Such a ban is an infringement on women’s rights, particularly after higher education and full-time employment have been made accessible. There have been talks in the Kingdom, statements and a call from prominent figures, to lift the controversial ban. But women activists have been protesting this ban for quite sometime now.
Shura council members support women’s rights to drive, urging for an introduction of a proper system to inculcate women onto the road; however, the higher authorities have not approved this yet, making it more difficult. It will not happen overnight. Lawmakers, liberal thinkers and women will have to be as resilient as ever and push until they break the glass ceiling. On a related note, the likes of Uber and Careem have immensely eased mobility for women ever since their launch in Saudi Arabia. It may not be a perfect substitute for public transport, but now women can commute independently whenever they please, instead of relying on male guardians or chauffeurs.
As social media apps, like Instagram and Snapchat, took the world by storm, Saudi women were quick to get on the bandwagon. They mostly use these apps in Arabic, keeping up with the global trends, connecting with comrades and following their local social media influencers on beauty, lifestyle, fashion, etc.
In the grand scheme of things, all these reforms are part and parcel of the country’s Vision 2030, making the region a more modern, youth-oriented society and with the goal of being a tourist-friendly destination by 2030.
Saudi Arabia wants to diversify its economy for sustainability and a thriving long-term future. Several sectors and resources have been neglected or shunned in the past, the entertainment sector being one such example. As part of Vision 2030, cultural and entertainment avenues will expand to cater to youth culture, saving them frequent flights to Bahrain or Dubai for leisure. Cultural venues – libraries, arts venues and museums – will open and local talent will be supported. To achieve this, the government seems willing to revise their current regulations. All this indicates that the country is indeed in a state of change, so a lot more seems possible now compared to before. There is still a long way to go to achieve the basic fundamentals of equality. Nevertheless, the good thing is that the ground work has begun. It is essential to highlight that Saudi Arabia, infamous for its treatment of women, is finally advocating women rights. It’s important to support those who have spent decades working towards change for women.
The UN must take responsibility to monitor the progress and intervene if the the country is not up to the mark. It is necessary to keep the discourse alive until results are achieved. Some critics have said that women rights are being pushed forward for international clout and personal gain on the part of the leaders involved in the Vision 2030. As long as there is a discussion for reforms on public forums, be it to fuel whichever agenda, it is nonetheless, extremely vital the cause for women is finally being addressed. The Saudi revolution is of a unique kind, not thunderous or anarchic in nature, but at a tortoise’s pace, slow and steady. Till then, the women shall keep their eyes on the finish line, especially women in the lower and middle socioeconomic class. They cannot afford to fly to neighbouring Gulf regions for a breath of fresh air whenever they please, or to take off their abayas to feel the cool breeze, or enjoy a little power leverage inside fancy compounds. All they have is the determination of the tortoise to make it to the finish line.
Hina Zahir Imam is a writer and photographer in Saudi Arabia.