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The heir to the Saudi throne is keen to change the austere image of Saudi Arabia through a series of moves such such as giving women the right to drive and the opening of movie theatres, despite opposition from religious hardliners. These are some of the more recent measures initiated in the kingdom:
WOMEN ALLOWED TO DRIVE
In a historic decision, Saudi Arabia ended its longstanding ban on women drivers. Accordingly, women will be allowed to drive from June this year under a royal decree that was issued in September 2017.
The move has sparked waves of euphoria and optimism among the women of the Islamic nation which was the only country to ban women from driving. Neither Islamic law nor Saudi traffic law explicitly prohibits women from driving, but they were not issued licences and were detained if they attempted to drive.
The decision to allow women to drive is considered a part of the crown prince’s social and economic reform plan known as Vision 2030, which aims at increasing women’s participation in the workforce from 22 per cent to 30 per cent by 2030 in a bid to wean oil-rich Saudi Arabia off its dependence on resource by stimulating growth in the private sector and promoting tourism.
BAN ON CINEMAS LIFTED
The Gulf kingdom lifted its public ban on commercial cinemas and is readying for a rush of cinema operators eager to turn the Middle Eastern country into a nation of moviegoers. The country’s first movie theater in more than 35 years will open on April 18 by AMC Theatres in Riyadh, with plans for up to 100 theatres in some 25 Saudi cities by 2030.
These movie theatres will not be segregated by gender like most other public places in the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom. Saudi Arabia had some cinemas in the 1970s but its powerful clerics closed them, reflecting rising Islamist influence throughout the Arab region at the time. In 2017, the government said it would lift the ban as part of Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to transform society.
Questions though remain about what kinds of movies Saudi Arabia will tolerate.
FIRST FASHION WEEK — FOR WOMEN ONLY
In another first, the Arab nation this week kicked off its first-ever fashion week with designs by Middle Eastern, Brazilian, US and Russian designers, as well as shows by internationally renowned labels Roberto Cavalli and Jean Paul Gaultier.
In line with Saudi cultural norms and rules on gender segregation, the catwalks are open to women-only and no outside cameras are allowed to film inside. Still, the event marks the latest turnaround for a country that for decades has been ruled by ultraconservative dogma. While the kingdom has held fashion shows in the past, they have mostly been tied to charitable causes and did not include big names in the industry.
Saudi women attend a fashion show in Riyadh (Reuters Photo)
FOCUS ON MUSIC, OPERA, CINEMA
The crown prince’s intent to transform the image of his country was evident during his recent trip to Paris. According to an agreement signed during his visit, the Arab country will employ French expertise to set up a national opera and orchestra, The deal will see the Paris Opera company help the Islamic nation produce its own classical music and shows.
The kingdom also announced it would enter short films at the Cannes cinema festival for the first time.
The heir to the Saudi throne has in recent days visited several countries, including the United States, to project a more moderate vision of his country which is often associated in the West with exporting jihadist ideology.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Arabia crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in Paris (AP photo)
PUBLIC CONCERTS PERMITTED
As part of these reforms, the kingdom has allowed concerts, including mixed-sex gigs. Last year, the nations hosted the first concert by a female performer — Lebanese singer Hiba Tawaji.– in the country’s history.
In February, Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority announced it would stage more than 5,000 festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number last year, and pump $64 billion in the sector in the coming decade.
But while times are changing, certain rules such as “Dancing is strictly prohibited” during a concert on March 30 underline the balancing act the Saudi government must perform as it takes steps towards liberalisation in a society where certain sections may not be as receptive to the idea.
Saudi women attend a concert in Jeddah (AFP photo)
‘SAUDI WOMEN SHOULD HAVE CHOICE ON ABAYA’In an interview with CBS television, Mohammed bin Salman said women in his country need not wear head cover or the black abaya – the loose-fitting, full-length robes symbolic of Islamic piety – as long as their attire is “decent and respectful.”
“The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of sharia (Islamic law): that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men,” the Saudi heir said.
“This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover. The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.”
It remains unclear if these statements signal a change in the enforcement of women’s dress code in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has no written legal code to go with the texts making up sharia, and police and judiciary have long enforced a strict dress code requiring Saudi women to wear abayas and in many cases to cover their hair and faces.
In recent years, Saudi women have started wearing more colourful abayas. Open abayas over long skirts or jeans are also becoming more common.
RIGHT TO JOG
On March 8 this year, a group of women in Jeddah marked International Women’s Day by exercising one of their newly acquired freedoms: the right to go for a jog.
Saudi women are now allowed to take physical activity to the public sphere, and following this decision, Saudi Arabia organised its first-ever women’s run at the beginning of March, marking a historical moment for its women. More than 1,500 women participated in the event.
In another significant change, women will be able to participate in the Riyadh International Marathon next year. Prior to this, women were not allowed to participate in any marathon or other running events.
The Islamic nation also held its first-ever women’s basketball tournament recently and will soon be hosting a women’s football tournament. In July 2017, Saudi Arabia introduced physical education for girls enrolled in schools and began granting licenses for running women’s gyms in the country.
Saudi women watch the soccer match between Al-Ahli and Al-Batin at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah in January (Reuters Photo)
CYCLING – SAUDI WOMEN EMBRACE CHANGE
In more signs that the ultra-conservative nation, which for decades seemed irreparably stuck in the past, is now changing by the day, are the images of women cycling regularly on the country’s roads.
One women cyclist says the change is evident. “Jeddah today isn’t the same as Jeddah five, six years ago. The scrutiny on clothes (has eased), there’s more places to go, working opportunities for women are the same as for men.”
A Saudi women cycles at Jeddah International College (Reuters Photo)
START BUSINESSES WITHOUT MALE PERMISSION
In a key policy change, women in the kingdom can now open their own businesses without the consent of a husband or male relative, marking a major step away from the strict guardianship system that has ruled the country for decades. Under Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system, women are required to present proof of permission from a male “guardian” – normally the husband, father or brother – to do any government paperwork, travel or enroll in classes.
Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor’s office this month said it would begin recruiting women investigators for the first time. The kingdom has also opened 140 positions for women at airports and border crossings, a historic first that the government said drew 107,000 female applicants.
With these changes, the 32-year-old de facto ruler has taken on the powerful clerics who long dominated Saudi life and struck out at the nation’s coddled elite with a dramatic purge of royals, ministers and business figures that saw hundreds detained in a probe over graft worth $100 billion.
Keen to present a modern and moderate Saudi Arabia to the world, the kingdom is working to combat extremist ideologies by reviewing school curricula and books to ensure they do not reflect the banned Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda.
It will ban such books from schools and universities and remove those who sympathise with the group or its ideology from their posts.
The young crown prince has already taken several steps to loosen Saudi Arabia’s ultra-strict social restrictions by scaling back the role of the religious morality police.
WOMEN ARE EQUAL TO MEN: CROWN PRINCE
In a departure from the Kingdom’s deeply conservative view, Mohammed bin Salman said that women are “absolutely” equal to men during an interview on CBS News programme. “We are all human beings and there is no difference,” he remarked.
He acknowledged that Saudi Arabia has been dominated by an “ultraconservative interpretation of Islam” that was wary of non-Muslims, deprived women of basic rights and constricted social life, the New York Times reported.
Bin Salman’s rise to power has been accompanied by an easing of restrictions on women’s dress and an expansion of their role in the work force. He said the government was working on policies to ensure equal pay.
However, women in Saudi Arabia are still bound by so-called guardianship laws that give male relatives control over aspects of their lives.
WHAT WOMEN STILL CAN’T DO
The Islamic nation’ male guardianship system, which subjects women to full dependence on their male counterparts (fathers, brothers, husbands, sons), in nearly all aspects of public life, has received criticism over the years as it is considered a “hindrance” to women’s liberty. Under the system, women are required to present proof of permission from a male “guardian” – normally the husband, father or brother – to do any government paperwork, apply for a national id card or passport, travel or enrol in classes.
Women here cannot marry, divorce, get a passport, travel, open a bank account or have a medical procedure without permission from their male guardians
Women must limit their interactions with males outside their immediate families and can be imprisoned for such an offence. They cannot eat at restaurants that don’t have a separate family section and are not allowed to use public swimming pools that are also used by men. They cannot appear in public without wearing the abaya.
Islamic restriction also prevents Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims. In case of divorce, women can’t retain custody of their children after they reach the age of seven for boys and nine for girls
In addition, they can’t get a fair hearing in court, where ‘the testimony of one man equals that of two women.’ The legal position in Saudi Arabia of a woman is equal to that of a minor, and therefore she has little authority over her own life Further, women cannot receive an equal inheritance. Under Sharia inheritance laws, daughters receive half what is awarded to their brothers.
While the crown prince is working hard to modernise the nation and a number of reforms on women’s freedom in the kingdom have taken place, these archaic rules still remain to be addressed.
(Inputs from Reuters, AP, AFP)