Saudi Arabian women can now drive — here are the biggest changes they have seen in just over a year

Center for International Communication, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

On Sunday, women across Saudi Arabia were allowed to drive for the first time.

It was a monumental shift, and just one of many in the last 18 months. The country has lifted a decades-long ban on cinemas, began building a multi-billion dollar entertainment city 2.5 times the size of Disney World, and is considering developing its own hyper-loop system.

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.

Many of these changes have benefitted Saudi women and, despite how small some may seem, are proving crucial in their march towards equality.

Here are the highlights:

Women are taking to the streets after Saudi Arabia lifted its longstanding ban on women driving.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Women have been campaigning for driving rights for years, and were finally given the ability to get behind the wheel this week. Many women have spent months preparing for the ban’s lifting 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 have applauded the shift, several of the activists involved in the Right to Drive campaign were suddenly arrested and held without charge this month, with many remaining in custody.

Women can now access basic rights, like education and healthcare, without permission from a male guardian.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The royal decree made by King Salman 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 apply for passport, get married, or even leave jail.

Women regularly face difficulty conducting transactions, like renting an apartment and filing legal claims, without a male relative’s consent or presence.

Source: Human Rights Watch

They can also open their own businesses without a guardian’s permission.

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Commerce and Investment said in February 2018 that women would be able to “start their own business freely,” and no longer faced 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.”

Source: Arab News

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 last year 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.

Source: The Guardian

And the number of women working in the private sector has soared 130% from 2013.

Jordan Pix/ Getty Images

In March 2017, the Ministry of Labour and Social Development said in 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.

Source: Al-Arabiya

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 position was announced in March 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.

Source: Reuters

Saudi Arabia joined the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which promotes gender equality and female empowerment.

John Moore/Getty Images

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.

Source: Washington Post

Women can now jog and do physical exercise in the streets.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia introduced physical education for girls 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.

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.

Source: Reuters

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.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In March, 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.

Source: CNN

But despite all these advances, women are far from reaching equality.

Sean Gallup/Getty ImagesAn instructor helps a woman who is wearing a traditional Muslim niqab to try out a car driving simulator during an outdoor educational driving event for women on June 21, 2018 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is scheduled to lift its ban on women driving, which has been in place since 1957, on June 24. The Saudi government, under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, is phasing in an ongoing series of reforms to both diversify the Saudi economy and to liberalize its society. The reforms also seek to empower women by restoring them basic legal rights, allowing them increasing independence and encouraging their participation in the workforce. Saudi Arabia is among the most conservative countries in the world and women have traditionally had much fewer rights than men.

In the 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, Saudi Arabia was ranked 141 out of 144 countries measured.

Women still need male permission for most major activities, like travel, getting married or divorced, and 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, stadiums, public transport and pools segregated by gender.

But a Saudi government program to improve citizen’s quality of life, put forward in May, 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 changes this year 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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