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