Women can now drive, cycle, work in public and travel without their husband’s permission. This was previously out of the question. For example, according to a group of religious scholars, driving would be bad for the ovaries, so you better leave it at that.
“It was all based on a misinterpretation of Islam,” says Lama, a student in Jeddah. “A small group of ultra-religious people had made those rules for us. But they were based on a far too strict interpretation of our beliefs. I am very happy that that has now changed.”
Although the changes are very good news for most women, these rights and freedoms do not apply to all women in Saudi Arabia. In recent years, for example, various women’s activists have been arrested or fled the country. The country still carries out the death penalty and criticism of those in power is not tolerated.
It is therefore difficult to speak to women activists or critical journalists. While they were willing to tell their story a few years ago, they no longer dare to do so. As long as you join the masses, you can be enthusiastic about the reforms, as long as you don’t talk critically about politics.
Men and women divorced
Even though men and women are now allowed to be in more and more places in the same room, it is by no means everywhere obvious. In the capital Riyadh, many restaurants still have a separate entrance for men and women and the men’s and women’s rooms are screened off with curtains. In other cafes you see wooden partitions to separate the men from the women.
Yet most women do not see this as a limitation, says Hind in a makeup store in Riyadh. “It’s about respect. We have to respect the men around us and experience these changes together,” she explains. “I am happy with the changes, but it should not go crazy. We want to stick to our culture and we want to keep the sharia.”