NewsMiddle EastAfter five years at the wheel, the road remains long for Saudi...

    After five years at the wheel, the road remains long for Saudi women

    Saudi Arabia allowed women to drive in 2018. Considered at the time as the sign of an evolution of the kingdom vis-à-vis women, this measure was accompanied by other new rights, but five years later, the results are however mixed.

    Five years ago, Jawhara al-Wabili was one of the first women to take the wheel in Saudi Arabia, thanks to a movement of openness in the ultra-conservative kingdom, which some activists accuse of being only a facade.

    “I drove as soon as the ban [pour les femmes de conduire] was lifted”, in 2018, says this 55-year-old Saudi woman, who lives in Bouraidah, a large city in the center of the country. She remembers giving free driving lessons at the time to help women get behind the wheel , in a country where public transport is almost non-existent.

    The granting of this new freedom is one of the key reforms carried out in the Gulf monarchy under the impetus of the young and powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

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    Since then, Saudi women have gained many more rights, says Jawhara al-Wabili. They are now “ambassadors, deputy ministers, bank board members, university directors” and even astronauts, she says, giving the example of Rayyanah Barnawi, the first Arab woman sent into space last May. .

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    With the abolition of the morality police, the authorization of coeducation in public events and the lifting of the obligation to wear the traditional abaya, a dress covering the body, Saudi society can give the impression of have changed.

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    “A Constant Fear”

    But female human rights activists based abroad paint a more mixed picture, denouncing in particular the repression of critical voices.

    “More and more women are in prison for not wearing the abaya, dancing in public or simply sharing their opinion on Twitter,” says Lina al-Hathloul, of the human rights association ALQST, London. “Yes, there are social changes” but Saudi women live “in constant fear of not really knowing (…) what is allowed and what is not.”

    The authorities, for their part, highlight the progress made and their ambition to make the oil monarchy, long closed to visitors, a tourist and business destination.

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    At international events such as the Davos Economic Forum, they highlight the strong increase in the number of women in the labor force : from 16 % in 2016, they are now 37 %.

    “After their decision on the conduct, all the policies put in place have made it possible to change the traditional role of women in society”, abounds the Saudi analyst Najah Al-Otaibi, based in London.

    As soon as they get off the plane, visitors are greeted by Saudi agents, smiling and perfectly English-speaking. During their stay, they see women driving private taxis, mechanics in garages, or even at the controls of the high-speed train that transports pilgrims to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam.

    “Nothing has changed” in the most conservative families

    But within homes, the reality is sometimes quite different. “All these reforms are (…) on paper, that does not necessarily mean that they are implemented in practice”, nuances researcher Sussan Saikali of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

    Presented as “progressive” by Riyadh, a long-awaited law on personal status and adopted in 2022 has been criticized by the NGO Human Rights Watch, which sees in it “discriminatory provisions against women concerning marriage, divorce and decisions about their children.”

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    According to US-based Saudi activist Hala Al-Dossari, “nothing has changed” in the most conservative families, where women continue to be at the mercy of their male guardians.

    Some had “the illusion that with the easing of restrictions on dress code and gender balance, they could now act more freely. Unfortunately, many of them fell victim to state oppression or their own family.”

    In November 2022, Manahel al-Otaibi was arrested after she posted social media posts criticizing male guardianship and abaya laws.

    The Saudi woman in her 30s was accused of launching a ‘propaganda campaign’ and referred to the Specialized Criminal Court, a court established in 2008 to handle terrorism-related cases but also widely used to try political dissidents and human rights activists.

    The latter believe that the only objective of the kingdom is to improve its image and point to its desire to muzzle any criticism as proof, underlines Sussan Saikali. “Unfortunately, stopping people speaking out doesn’t really help to improve your image either,” she says.

    With AFP

    Source: France 24

    This post is posted by Awutar staff members. Awutar is a global multimedia website. Our Email: [email protected]


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