Saudi Women Embracing New Freedoms This International Women’s Day

How Law Reforms Have Given Saudi Women More Opportunities for the New Decade

On March 8 of every year, women and girls around the world observe the struggles they have had to overcome and everything they have accomplished. Though the goal of gender equality has still not been reached, especially in the developing world, women use this day to celebrate everything that has been achieved so far and to highlight what still needs to change. During the waning years of the previous decade, King Salman of Saudi Arabia started issuing progressive royal decrees which gave Saudi women unprecedented freedoms. As a result, Saudi women now welcome the decade enjoying several liberties that were previously denied. As this is the first International Women’s Day of the decade, Saudi women can now look forward to further reforms that will give their lives more mobility and opportunities.

NO MORE MALE GUARDIANS

Up until recently, women in Saudi Arabia needed the permission of male guardians (mirham) to do most things in life, whether it going it with friends, seeking a university education…etc. Some lucky women had lenient male guardians who allowed them to make their own decisions and therefore lived freely. However, many other women weren’t as privileged and didn’t have the freedom to make their own choices. Thankfully, in August 2019, King Salman signed a royal decree that did away with this restriction and today women in Saudi Arabia are free to make their own life choices, now ambitious young women do not need the approval to become doctors, entrepreneurs or scientists. Now Saudi women can go out with their friends without any barriers.

In another extraordinary move, late last year the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that it is considering removing one major restriction for young women seeking to perform the Hajj and Umrah religious pilgrimages. As it stands, women under the age of 45 who seek to perform these pilgrimages can only do so with a mihram, such as a husband or a blood male relative. This restriction applies to all women from around the world, and not just Saudi women.

 



Saudi entrepreneurs Asmaa Alabdallah (L), founder of BitGo, and Reem Dad (R), co-founder of Taibah VR, stand in front of Halcyon House in Washington on August 17, 2018. (Getty)

FREEDOM OF DRESS, DRIVING AND OTHER LEISURE ACTIVITIES

Recently, Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman stated that women in Saudi Arabia should be given the choice of whether or not they should wear the abaya, a black head-to-toe covering. As a result of the statement, more and more women have opted not to wear the covering. In the past, women were forced to wear the abaya when going outdoors, as such this freedom of choice was a welcome one for the women and girls living in the Kingdom. While not all women have chosen to take off the abaya, some have embraced the new reforms by wearing multicolored abayas, instead of the traditional black ones.

 



Rana Almimoni, a 30-year-old Saudi motor racing enthusiast, sits in her car on a track in Dirab motor park, on the southern outskirts of the capital Riyadh, on July 19, 2018. (Getty)

One thing that female activists in the Kingdom have been campaigning for was the right to drive cars. For decades, Saudi women were not given the right to drive, now thanks to a royal decree passed in 2018, women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to drive cars. Following the decree, women rushed to get their driver's licenses while others, such as speed race enthusiast Rana Almimoni embraced their passion for drifting and speed racing in Riyadh’s motor parks.

The reforms led to the Kingdom hosting a number of concerts, art fairs, and sporting events and women were allowed to attend many of such events. For instance, many of the fans who attended the 2019-20 Supercopa de España matches, which were all hosted in Jeddah, were women. Moreover, last year’s BTS concert, which was the first non-Arab artist concert in Saudi Arabia, also allowed women to attend.

SAUDI WOMEN IN THE WORKFORCE

One aspect that, unfortunately, doesn’t make as many international headlines is the increase of female participation in the workforce. Contrary to popular belief, even before the reforms, Saudi women were allowed to join the workforce, however, in 2017 only 18 percent of the Saudi labour force was female. Some of the barriers that held women back from seeking work included the need for a male guardian’s approval and restrictions on driving which forced women to rely on either public transport or male guardians to drive them to work. The removal of the mihram and the end of the female driving ban thus removed two of the big obstacles working Saudi women faced. A September 2019 report published in the Saudi Gazette showed that the reforms have led to a massive increase of female workforce participants, as at the time that the article was published there were 440,700 working women in Saudi Arabia, a massive rise from 2018 which saw only 156,000 women in the labour force.

The Saudi government has also made new reforms to encourage women to go into the workforce, for instance, the government has implemented plans to establish 233 childcare centers around the Kingdom. The aim of these centers was to help working women who couldn’t afford domestic workers to care for their children while they’re at their jobs. Another decision that helped women is the policy of “Saudisation” of the workforce, under these new laws corporation now have to hire a certain quota of Saudi citizens. As a result, more Saudi companies have looked toward hiring women to make up this quota requirement. The Saudi state has also loosened restrictions on the jobs women are allowed to work in, for example, women were previously barred from working in the Interior Ministry, but now many women have taken up positions in the ministry and other institutions they weren’t allowed to work at. Looser rules on shift hours have also allowed more women to work during night shifts (which under Saudi law take place between 6 PM and 6 AM).

Thanks to reforms implemented by King Salman, women in Saudi Arabia have welcomed the new decade with more liberties and freedoms. However, this is not the end of the reforms, as Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 has called for an expansion of these liberties as well as female participation in the workforce.

 



Saudi women attend a concert by Egyptian pop sensation Tamer Hosny in the western city of Jeddah on March 30, 2018. (Getty)