Progress and Challenges: Saudi Women Driving for Change

In a significant milestone that drew global attention, Jawhara al-Wabili became one of Saudi Arabia’s first women drivers five years ago. For her, the authorization to drive was a revolutionary reform, even though some activists dismissed it as mere window-dressing. Speaking proudly, the 55-year-old from Buraidah, a central city in Saudi Arabia, recounted her experience to AFP. She acknowledged the sweeping social changes fast-tracked by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the conservative kingdom. “I would greatly appreciate your assistance with another inquiry. Would you mind lending me a hand?”  I would really appreciate it if you could rewrite this content in a completely unique manner while maintaining a friendly tone.

Wabili has taken her driving skills further by providing free driving lessons to other women, recognizing the importance of this skill in a country with limited public transportation options.”Behold, an uplifting illustration of how the rights of women have genuinely flourished in recent times.”  It’s amazing to see how women are now excelling in a wide range of roles, including as ambassadors, directors in banks, administrators in universities, and even astronauts. The progress made is truly remarkable! Notably, Saudi scientist Rayyanah Barnawi participated in a mission to the International Space Station this past May, showcasing the changing landscape for Saudi women.

These advancements are also evident in daily life, especially since the religious police have been sidelined and rules enforcing gender segregation and the mandatory wearing of abaya robes have been abolished. However, some human rights campaigners express concerns about the depth of these reforms, emphasizing that women have become entangled in a wider campaign of arrests targeting government critics, including the very women who led the driving license campaign.

Lina al-Hathloul, the head of monitoring and communication for the rights group ALQST, points out that the number of women imprisoned is increasing. They face charges for not wearing abaya, dancing in public, tweeting their opinions on various subjects, and even discussing unemployment. In the midst of this climate of uncertainty, individuals find themselves perpetually gripped by fear, unsure about the boundaries of their actions and what is deemed permissible.

Saudi officials, unsurprisingly, strive to highlight the progress made by women, as they seek to transform their long-closed-off country, known primarily as the world’s largest crude exporter, into a business-friendly and tourist-friendly destination. Prominent global gatherings like the World Economic Forum in Davos evoke a profound sense of pride by highlighting the remarkable strides made by women in Saudi Arabia’s workforce.

While progress is evident in public spaces and professional spheres, challenges persist within Saudi homes. Sussan Saikali of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington emphasizes that the legal changes and reforms on paper do not automatically translate into real-life reforms. A personal status law, hailed as “progressive” by Riyadh and implemented last year, has faced criticism for containing “discriminatory provisions against women concerning marriage, divorce, and decisions about their children,” as described by Human Rights Watch.

Hala al-Dosari, an activist originally from Saudi Arabia and currently residing in the United States, highlights an ongoing issue concerning women from conservative backgrounds who still face the dominance of male guardians in their lives. Although some women may feel they can navigate public spaces more freely due to the easing of restrictions on dress codes and gender mixing, many are still victims of state oppression or their own families.

Speaking out against these challenges carries its own risks. Women’s rights activist Manahel al-Otaibi was recently accused by Saudi prosecutors of launching a “propaganda campaign” for challenging guardianship laws and criticizing the continued forced wearing of the abaya on social media. Otaibi’s case was referred to the Specialized Criminal Court, which handles terrorism cases. This court previously sentenced a Leeds University PhD student, Salma Al-Shehab, to 34 years in jail for critical tweets about the government.

Activists believe that Saudi authorities are primarily focused on improving their international image, which is why they find criticism unsettling. As Sussan Saikali highlights, “Unfortunately, arresting people for speaking out doesn’t exactly help their image either.”

Despite significant strides made by Saudi women, there remain roadblocks and challenges to overcome in their ongoing pursuit of gender equality and human rights. The journey towards genuine reform continues, with human rights campaigners striving to shed light on the issues and advocate for lasting change.

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