What place do women have today in Saudi Arabia?
Today Saudi Arabia is a country widely criticized by the Western media. Every step it takes towards a better life for its citizens is watched very closely by everyone and, because of its past, the public cannot believe that real progress is being made. Nevertheless, we tend to underestimate the reforms when we compare it to the history of other Western countries.
What we would like to look at are the real changes that have been made over the past year which have had a huge impact on the situation as a whole. Progress is currently being made, however it will take a while for reforms to come into place. Let’s look at some examples of what has recently happened in Saudi Arabia:
On 20 September 2018 Weam Al-Dakheel, a journalist for the Saudi TV channel SBA, appeared at the presentation of the evening news alongside a male colleague. A familiar image all over the world, but in Saudi Arabia, it is rather news. Never before has a woman worked as a news presenter in the country at prime time.
Women at the heart of “Vision 2030”?
This new initiative is slowly strengthening the place of women in Saudi society and is part of a long series of reforms communicated over the past few months by the authorities of this still very conservative country. The project is called “Vision 2030” and is officially carried by the Crown Prince of the Kingdom – Mohammed Bin Salman. This plan aims to allow the country to diversify its still highly oil-dependent economy, while modernizing society. Opening the doors of social and professional life to women also means putting more Saudi women to work and enabling households to earn a second salary.
In a large shopping center in the capital, we meet Rawan, a young Saudi dentist. She explains that today, women no longer officially need the consent of a male family member to work or start a business, alas the practice has recently changed. Just like 70% of the population in Saudi Arabia, Rawan is under 30 years old. According to her, Saudi`s society is indeed evolving, and not only towards women`s emancipation.
“Everyone is ready to try new things.”
“Five years ago, the company was more closed and not open to change,” explains the young woman. But today, everyone hopes that there will still be some positive ones. Everyone is ready to try new things. For example, if we talk about leisure. There are now cinemas. Before, there was strong opposition to the opening of cinemas. Some thought they should not be established in Saudi Arabia. There are also theaters and circuses now, there are many changes. In terms of education, things are also improving. There is more equality between men and women. Women can be enrolled alongside men to study programs. For example, in the medical field”.
“I was allowed to go to court and represent my clients.”
Across the same table her friend Lamia smiles. She’s a lawyer. In recent months, she has been able to start really practicing her profession. “Today, there is a big change, which is that I, as a woman, was allowed to go to court to represent my clients. Three or four years ago, the courtroom was not accessible for women. We did everything from our office or elsewhere but we couldn’t go there And judges have to adapt to that. They are used to seeing only men in court. They are not used to seeing a woman appeal at a trial, for example. Now, as women are allowed, they will need time to adapt. It’s not about power or anything like that. Judges just have to adapt to this situation as much as we women have to to feel more comfortable. This is something new for all of us.”
“Men can enter without being stared at.”
Another change is beginning to emerge: a certain form of acceptance is being slowly implemented in public places. In a women’s lingerie boutique, we meet Latifa, a store manager. She explains that “the standards and mentalities before were different. For example, before it would have been very surprising to see a man in a store like this. But today, mentalities have changed and people can enter here without being stared at. It becomes something normal”. Behind this observation, which may seem very anecdotal, there are symbolic walls that are gradually being torn apart. For example, it is becoming more common to see public places, cafes or restaurants frequented by both women and men who share the same space, without a dividing wall.
“More changes over 12 months than over 10 years”
Many women told us that they have seen more changes in Saudi Arabia in the past 12 months than in the past 10 years.
All these examples of people living in Saudi Arabia are there to show us that, despite the time it has taken, the country is striving towards reforms and that its government is determined to continue doing so in the same direction. Vision 2030 may seem very ambitious, but the country is showing through actions that transformation is the future that awaits the Saudi people.