Dawn of A New Era — Saudi On The Brinks of Major Change


In an epoch-making decision, Saudi Arabia issued the first set of driving licenses to women, three weeks prior to the actual termination of the long withstanding ban on female drivers. Chances are that the government might soon include two thousand more women in this new class of `women drivers’ in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has the despicable distinction of being the only country in the world to have had slapped a ban on female drivers. A detestable off-shoot of the sharia law, the ban was a major hindrance to women’s rights in the country. Side-lining women to a subservient position, the Sharia law urges for a man’s consent to the activities of women. Compelling women to seek the approval of a male family member for all activities, the law upholds the supremacy of man. Restricting the freedom of women, the law mandates the involvement of a man in all crucial decision making processes. Bordering on the lines of chauvinism, the law curtails the free movement of women. Forcing the Saudi women to depend on other male family members or taxis, for the purpose of commutation, the ban resulted in unnecessary expenses for women. In the face of severe criticism from women rights activists, the Saudi government finally agreed to lift the ban last September. The ban which was placed in Riyadh in 1957, will finally be annulled on the 24th of June this year.

The orthodox image of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has always fostered traditionalist ideas. Extremely conformist in its attitude, the kingdom is known for its pro-Islamic policies. Promoting an ultra-conservative take on Islam, the middle-eastern state has stringent rules and regulations. The authoritarian regime has imposed several restrictions on its citizens, especially its female inhabitants.

Subject to a myriad of restrictions, the women of Saudi are obligated to seek the validation of a male guardian for all crucial decisions in life. Succumbing under `the guardian system,’ the women of the kingdom are mandated to have an official male `wali’ (guardian) in the form of a parent, sibling or relative. The guardian’s consent is required for all activities including the woman’s application for passports, marriage and travel.

But with the appointment of Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) as the crown prince in June 2017, things seem to have changed for the better. Serving as the deputy prime minister of the kingdom, MBS has taken upon himself the responsibility to liberalise the policies. With the initiation of the much-publicized liberalisation drive in the kingdom, MBS has been vying to realise the proposed `Saudi Vision 2030’. The highly ambitious proposal promises to usher in social, cultural and economic reforms in the kingdom. As part of the reforms, Saudi recently terminated the 35 year old ban on public-cinema. With the screening of Black Panther, it ended the much hated ban on public theatres. Relaxing further rules, the kingdom allowed women to watch Al-Ahli’s match against Al-Batin in the Saudi Pro League. Allowing women into the King Abdullah Sports City stadium in Jedda for the first time, the kingdom assured of opening other football stadiums for women spectators. With the organisation of the first Saudi concert by a female singer and the much hyped fashion week, Saudi seems to have embarked upon the path towards liberalisation. Women are no longer forced to seek the permission of their guardian for decisions like joining a university, undergoing a surgery and applying for a job.

Inspite of the promised reforms, the number of detained human rights activists increased drastically during the reign of MBS. Accused of human rights violation, MBS faced the ire of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The persecution of well-known activists like novelist Mustafa al-Hassan, Abdullah al-Malki, Essam al-Zamel and the founding members of ACPRA, Abdulaziz al-Shubaily and Issa al-Hamid resulted in angry outbursts. Tarnishing the image of Saudi is the fact that the government has made it nearly impossible for women to seek legal redress in cases of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Mandating the authorisation of a male guardian for a woman to file a case, the law has made it difficult for women to seek justice in cases where the guardian himself is the perpetrator. Women are still subject to abominable restrictions like that of not being able to freely participate in sports, swim in public pools or freely interact with men. And then there is the dress code that forces them to cover themselves in a black robe called `abaya’ from head to toe.

Even though Saudi has come a long way, it still has a very tricky path ahead of it. Hopefully the kingdom will be able to traverse this rocky path that is lined with hardline clerics and intransigent religious heads.

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