Saudi Arabia has seen tremendous strides in women’s rights throughout the past decade. There are a few notable areas of progress toward women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. However, the incarceration of female activists points to the lack of progression in women’s rights.
Progress of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia
- Having ID Cards: To many, the era of female progress in Saudi Arabia began in 2013 when the government began requiring women to have their own ID cards. Previously, many women had simply been listed as a dependant on their father or husband’s card. Thus, it required a male figure to prove their identity during many transactions. While this practice largely continued, women welcomed their IDs as a symbol of independence.
- Freedom to Choose Attire: The following years also saw a loosening of decades-old modesty requirements for Saudi women. In 2017, the government prohibited the country’s religious police, the principal enforcers of modesty rules, from arresting or detaining the public. In 2018, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reinforced this progressive sentiment, telling CBS, “The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of Sharia: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men. This, however, does not particularly specify a [traditionally required] black abaya or a black headcover.” The Crown Prince also talks about letting women decide what they choose to wear.
- The Right to Drive: Saudi female autonomy saw another great victory in 2018 when the nation lifted its infamous ban on female driving. This landmark decision was part of the Crown Prince’s plan to revitalize the Saudi economy. He hopes to bring more women into the workforce. According to the United Nations Development Programme 2018 Human Development Reports, 23.4% of Saudi women ages 15 and older participated in the labor force that year. This is a figure Salman hopes to increase significantly by 2030.
- Lift Permission From Male Guardian: In 2019, many once again heralded the Crown Prince for his reform. Under a new law, women in Saudi Arabia no longer needed permission from a male guardian to travel. They could also apply for passports, and register and receive official documents for a marriage, birth or divorce.
Challenges of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia
Many have hailed the Saudi government for these progressive developments. In addition, the Crown Prince has earned a reputation as a progressive creating a new Saudi Arabia. However, amid years of loosening restrictions, outspoken Saudi women have continued to face persecution. Most famously, women’s rights activists Loujain Al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, Aisha al-Mana, Aziza al-Yousef and Madeha al-Ajroush were arrested in 2018. The activists are allegedly sexually abused and tortured for their activism and open criticism of Saudi Arabia. As of August 2020, they continue to await trial in a Saudi prison.
Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia thus continue to reflect the country’s conflicting traditional and progressive values. Some view the Crown Prince’s reform as a mere distraction from an overarching culture that views women as property. As Lina al-Hathloul, the sister of the incarcerated activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, told TIME in May, Saudi Arabians are struggling to define what falls in line with these values. “Now we don’t have the religious police and we have concerts,” she said. Lina al-Hathloul mentioned that under the new public decency law, the police can arrest and imprison women for dancing at a concert.
According to the Crown Prince’s ambitious Vision 2030 plan, progress and reform in Saudi Arabia have just begun. Imprisoned activists and blurred boundaries ensure that even with the rights granted in recent years, Saudi women will enter this decade of advancement with caution.
– Stella Pagkas