Just a few months ago, an advertisement by a leading car brand was doing the rounds of social media. It featured a woman’s purse spilled onto a table. The splayed contents included dark sunglasses, red lipstick and a bottle of perfume — and then, a key fob for the car slides into the frame. The entry of the fob seems to complete the picture.
The ad, which is an elusive overture to Saudi women, would have been unimaginable till a year ago. It represents a huge change towards women in Saudi Arabia. The newly attained freedom to drive is likely to transform millions of lives in the region.
In September 2017, it was announced in a royal decree, read live on state television and in a simultaneous media event in Washington, that women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to drive cars, ending a conservative tradition seen by rights activists as the Islamic kingdom’s repression of women. The driving licenses began to be isused to women from last month.
Our limited perception of women in Saudi Arabia has for long been formed by our exposure to negative and often biased media reports. However, of late, reportage of news on women has taken a drastic turn. Developments pertaining to their rights and freedom have become commonplace. This helps us draw a balanced conclusion about Saudi women.
With progressive leadership and their development charter, ‘Vision 2030’, the Saudi Arabian society is trying to be at par with other ‘women friendly’ nations in the world. However, it would be grossly unfair to compare women’s freedom in Saudi Arabia to the Western ideals of freedom.
Saudi Arabia in the last two years has achieved several milestones. One of the biggest developments has been in the financial sector. The financial sector is considered notorious around the world for its blatant disregard for gender parity — but in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a lady has become the CEO of a commercial bank.
Saudi Arabia has made various changes over the last decade to liberalise the role of women in society. Prominent instances of this include adult franchise — enabling women to actively participate in the country’s political space, to take a proactive role in the shaping of the economy, and taking legal measures to bring about an end to domestic violence — an endemic in many societies in the West.
This year, women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to attend a football match in a stadium in the Kingdom for the first time. Women’s participation in sporting events has gone up marginally there.
A strong gender divide is prevalent across the world, but the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is taking giant strides to change the narrative of how women are held in society. Twenty per cent of the seats in the advisory council that supports the central government are allotted to women, and many a celebrated woman are already part of the council. In 2013, women became a formidable force in the Shura Council.
In line with their ambitious social reform agenda ‘Vision 2030’, one of their goals is inclusion of women in the Saudi economy. Sarah Al-Suhaimi was appointed as the first ever women to chair the Saudi stock exchange along with Somayya Jabarti who will be the first ever woman to hold the rank of editor-in-chief in a news daily. To add to that, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Labor and Social Development has revealed a national policy for female employment that will provide more than 50,000 outsourcing job opportunities.
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is also bringing about various initiatives in order to make it easy for women to have a social, political and economic voice. As per some report, a woman no longer requires the male guardian’s permission to work. Authorities have given incentives to employers who allocate certain positions for women. Moreover, the Kingdom is providing hundreds of academic scholarships for women to study in Saudi Arabia and abroad.
Saudi Arabia has worked and is constantly working to ease the access of women to services. In a landmark move, the government will begin issuing licences for women-only gyms from this month to promote health and fitness among women.
And now, Saudi aviation academy is all set to nurture its first women pilots. Sure, women in Saudi Arabia are set to fly with the winds of change.