Women are steering Saudi Arabia toward revolutionary change

Women are steering Saudi Arabia toward revolutionary change
© Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia is changing more rapidly than many observers predicted and none of these changes have been more surprising, or more significant, than those affecting women. Yes, there had been gradual progress for women over the years. After significant protests, King Faisal made public schools widely available to girls in 1961. Aramco hired its first Saudi women workers nearly 50 years ago and its first female engineer in 1980. Women were granted the right to vote in the country’s limited elections in 2015. But in general, the status of women in Saudi Arabia has lagged far behind global norms.

The ambitious development plans outlined in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and promoted at this year’s Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, which ends today, all require social change. Anyone hoping to evaluate the kingdom’s economic future or political stability will need to understand the unprecedented speed of its cultural revolution.  

When women were permitted to drive in 2018, many expected that change would come gradually, as had always done in the past. They predicted that initially only married women and women over 35 would be allowed to drive during daylight hours. That is not what happened. When change came, it was no longer gradual. Women were immediately granted exactly the same driving licenses as men. Some even became taxi drivers. The women who benefited most from driving were not those with a BMW and a chauffeur to take them shopping, but rather working women who could now buy a Hyundai and drive themselves rather than hire a cab every day. Like most of the recent reforms, it was the poor, the young and female Saudis who benefited most from change.

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Encouraged by a very clear affirmative action program to hire and promote them, more and more Saudi women are working in both the public and private sectors. Over the past five years Saudi Arabia has seen its first female newspaper editors, bank executives, diplomats, deputy ministers, deputy mayors, TV anchors and public prosecutors. Sarah Al-Suhaimi now heads the Saudi stock exchange and Lynn Laverty Elsenhans is on the board of Saudi Aramco. This is a dramatic change in a country where women were once banned from working as lawyers or geologists. Since 2016, the female labor force participation rate in Saudi Arabia has nearly doubled. At 33 percent the rate remains low by Western standards but is a huge improvement for a country where social stigma and legal restrictions had long kept women at home.

Nothing handicapped working women more than the complex guardianship regulations. Under this system, a woman needed written permission from her father or husband to open a bank account, attend university, travel abroad or even have a cesarean delivery. Most of these restrictions are now gone. Likewise, women are no longer required to sit in the segregated “family section” of restaurants nor do the religious police still enforce conservative dress codes. Movie theaters have opened where men and women can sit together. For the first time, girls are participating in school sports and attending public sporting events. Valentine’s Day, which was once banned as a pagan holiday, is now openly celebrated with florists no longer being arrested for selling red roses.

Those who say these changes were long overdue have a valid point, but those who think they were easy to make are wrong. All of these reforms faced stiff opposition from conservative religious and tribal leaders. The powerful religious establishment firmly holds that God ordained and scripture prescribes fundamentally different roles for males and females. These clerics suspect that gender mixing, dancing and alcohol can promote lust. They consider traditional gender roles a fundamental element of any Islamic society and have long opposed women working outside of the home. 

Some tribal leaders believe that women working and living where they please and ultimately marrying whomever they choose will weaken tribal cohesion — and ultimately their own political influence. In Afghanistan, similar opposition from religious and tribal leaders is now reversing female emancipation. Not in Saudi Arabia, although King Salam certainly faces very similar resistance. He is carefully trying to balance demands for social liberalization from an increasingly young urban, and well-educated population with opposition from conservatives firmly committed to the past who remain numerous, well organized and potentially violent. 

So far he is succeeding, but this is a delicate balancing act for a government that bases its legitimacy on Islamic law and social values. Some would like the process to move forward even faster. Yet it is worth remembering that 60 years ago even in the United States an unmarried woman could not check into a hotel alone or obtain a car loan in her own name. 

We, like the Saudis, have come a long way, and still have a ways to go.  While we should not ignore other human rights issues in Saudi Arabia, it would be sensible to recognize those changes that are taking place and support them.

David H. Rundell is a former chief of Mission at the American Embassy in Saudi Arabia. He is the author of “Vision or Mirage: Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads” and a partner in the consulting firm Arabia Analytica.