- Women under the age of 21 in Saudi Arabia can now travel without a male guardian’s permission.
- The country has also allowed women to drive, lifted a decades-long ban on cinemas, and is building a multi-billion dollar entertainment city 2.5 times the size of Disney World.
- Many of the changes have been pushed by Mohammed bin Salman who, since his promotion to crown prince in June 2017, has taken drastic steps to reform and modernise Saudi Arabia in an effort to shift the country’s economy away from oil and prepare the country for the future.
- MBS remains a polarising figure, though, as he faced global outcry in fall 2018 over the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who the CIA later concluded was assassinated on the prince’s orders.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Woman over the age of 21 in Saudi Arabia can now travel without a male guardian’s permission.
It’s the latest example of the kingdom slowly starting to loosen restrictions on daily life in the last two years. The country also finally allowed women to drive, lifted a decades-long ban on cinemas, and began building a multi-billion dollar entertainment city 2.5 times the size of Disney World.
Many of the changes have been pushed by 33-year-old Mohammed bin Salman who, since his promotion to crown prince in June 2017, has taken drastic steps to reform and modernise Saudi Arabia in an effort to shift the country’s economy away from oil and prepare the country for the future.
While he is seen as a figure who is loosening up some freedoms for women in the kingdom, he is also harshly criticised for human rights offenses. The CIA has concluded he ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in fall 2018.
But many of the changes to daily life have benefitted Saudi women and, despite how small some may seem, are proving crucial in their march toward equality. Here’s a list of the activities that are now allowed in the country.
Women can travel without a male guardian’s permission.
In an amendment to Saudi Arabian regulations, women 21 years and older are given the same rights as men when it comes to travelling. Previously, women only had a page in their male guardian’s passport.
The regulation used to say that the wife’s place of stay was her husband’s, but now its focus is on minors’ being with their father or guardian.
That means that women under the age of 21 are still subject to the guardian system. INSIDER’s Bill Bostock pointed out that many of the 1,000 Saudis who flee each year are under 21, meaning that despite the change, they still need male permission to leave the country.
These changes come after the Saudi Arabian travelling system came under fire, partly due to reporting by INSIDER, which highlighted how the system restricted women trying to flee the country.
The law changes also let women register births, marriages, divorces, or deaths. This used to only be possible for men.
Women took to the streets when Saudi Arabia lifted its longstanding ban on women driving.
Women had been campaigning for driving rights for years, and were finally allowed to get behind the wheel in July 2018. Many women had spent months preparing for the ban to be lifted by taking driving courses specifically designed for women.
Previously, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world where a woman could go to jail for driving.
While many applauded the shift, several of the activists involved in the Right to Drive campaign were suddenly arrested and held without charge in May 2018. Many were later released, but people still feel threatened.
Women could vote for the first time ever in municipal elections.
While municipal councils don’t hold much power in the country, the ability to vote was a symbolic moment for women. It was the first time in history they could go to the polling booths. Although, it was only the third time the country had gone to the polls at all, since it became a country in 1932.
The voting stations were still segregated, but women said it felt great to be able to vote. Seventeen women were elected.
Women can now access basic rights, like education and healthcare, without permission from a male guardian.
The royal decree King Salman made in May 2017 allows women to access government and health services without requiring consent from their male guardians, who otherwise have the ultimate authority over what women in the country can do.
The King proposed easing the strict male guardianship laws within three months of his decree, but more general guardianship laws are still in place today – male approval is needed for women to, get married, or leave jail.
Women regularly face difficulty conducting transactions, like renting an apartment and filing legal claims, without a male relative’s consent or presence.
They can also open their own businesses without a guardian’s permission.
In February 2018, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Commerce and Investment said that women would be able to “start their own business freely,” and no longer face more obstacles than men in becoming entrepreneurs.
Dima Al-Shareef, a Saudi law consultant, told Arab News that the country was “witnessing a new era in the empowerment of Saudi women, in the commercial sphere in particular.”
Stadiums recently began letting women watch sports live.
King Abdullah Sports City stadium in Jeddah made history when allowed women to sit in the stands to view a national soccer game in January 2018.
Despite gaining entry, women were segregated from men and had to use special entrances designated for women and families.
The Saudi government announced in October 2017 that it would be opening up stadiums in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam for women and families. The government added that plans to open up more women-friendly facilities at stadiums around the country would be ready within the year.
And the number of women working in the private sector has soared 130% from 2013.
In March 2017, the Ministry of Labour and Social Development said that women represent 30% of the private sector work force.
The report said that the government hopes to see that number jump by an extra 28% by 2020.
Sarah Al-Suhaimi became the first woman to chair Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange.
Al-Suhaimi was appointed head of the Middle East’s largest stock exchange in February 2017.
She graduated with honours from King Saud University, and later went to Harvard Business School. Al-Suhaimi is also the CEO and a Board Director of the investment arm of Saudi Arabia’s first bank.
Currently, Saudi Arabia enforces strict labour codes that prevent women from working in certain professions, such as optometry, and strict religious observance prohibits women and men from mixing sometimes even at work.
Another challenge is getting to work. Without the ability to drive, many women have to rely on male guardians for transport, though investments have been poured into improving public transportation and ride-sharing apps for women.
And another woman, Tamadur bint Youssef al-Ramah, was the first to be appointed deputy labour minister.
Al-Ramah’s position was announced in March 2018 in conjunction with a major military and political reshuffle, which was seen as a way to “pump young blood” into the government, a Saudi analyst said on TV.
Saudi Arabia joined the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which promotes gender equality and female empowerment.
Saudi Arabia was voted in for a four-year term in April 2017, outraging many who viewed the appointment as “absurd,” given Saudi Arabia’s vast gender inequality.
Still, the United Nations defended its decision.
“Saudi Arabia’s interest in occupying one of the Commission’s seats allocated to the Asia-Pacific region is an indication that the country wants to play an active role in the work of this important body,” it said.
Women can now jog and do physical exercise in the streets.
Saudi Arabia introduced physical education for girls in 2017 and began granting licenses for women’s gyms, allowing women to exercise publicly.
Over 1,500 women participated in the first all-women run that was organised shortly before International Women’s Day in 2018.
Women were previously banned from running in the country’s official marathons, but Saudi officials have said women will be allowed to compete in the 2019 Riyadh international marathon.
They can also enlist in the military.
Saudi Arabia’s military opened applications to women for the first time in March 2018. But the criteria for applicants was and included specific height, weight, and education requirements.
Notably, women still needed to ask their male guardians for permission to apply and needed to reside with their guardian in the same province as the future job’s location.
And divorced women can retain custody of their children.
In March 2018, mothers in Saudi Arabia were granted the right to retain custody of their children after divorcing, without going through legal proceedings.
Previously, Saudi courts required women to petition for custody, in a battle which often spanned years.
In many other Middle East countries the father is considered a child’s natural guardian, and gains full custody at a certain age.
But despite all these advances, women are far from reaching equality.
In the 2018 Global Gender Gap Report, Saudi Arabia was ranked 141 out of 144 countries measured.
Women still need male permission for many major activities, like filing a police report.
The country still enforces a modest dress code. Most women wear a long cloak known as an “abaya” and many shops don’t even allow women to try on clothing at malls.
Men and women and men are still prohibited from mixing in public, with beaches, public transport and pools segregated by gender.
But a Saudi government program to improve citizen’s quality of life, put forward in May 2018, called for “intermingling of both genders to enhance social cohesion.”
Lina Abirafeh, the director at the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, told Business Insider that these changes have been impactful, but the country still needs to do more.
“There is a need to progress gradually but also to be clear that the goal is full equality – without exceptions,” Abirafeh said.
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