RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — A fully covered Muslim woman and her uncovered daughter sat side-by-side, swinging on a play structure. In many regions of the world, this might be a typical sight, but in Saudi Arabia, it is relatively rare.
For Taylor Lea, this was one of the images that struck him most when he began his work teaching at a private institution in Khobar.
“It seemed like such a normal thing for a mother and daughter to do, but the reality is that it’s not at all normal here,” Lea said.
Saudi Arabia‘s restrictions on women are part of a larger, deeply ingrained set of customs and laws that make women dependent on men. In many ways, however, women are gaining more of a voice and accepted role in society. Though restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia have long been a dominant force, change is slowly occurring.
“The Saudi woman’s voice has always been there calling for change,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, a prominent Saudi Arabian historian of women. “But today it is more apparent and it is getting to the decision-makers.”
A recent initiative by the Saudi government advisory group Shura Council urged the introduction of physical education for girls at Saudi government schools, generating heated conversation and mixed opinions from conservatives. A ban on education for girls in private schools was lifted in 2013, but conservatives protested against the change in public schools. They argued that the girls’ gym was a Western idea that leads to prostitution and adultery.
Despite these protests, athletics seem to be becoming an increasingly large part of life among women in Saudi Arabia. The country lifted its ban on women competing in the Olympics in June 2012, allowing two Saudi women to participate in Judo and Track and Field. Private schools have sports teams and even cheerleading for co-ed participation.
Saudi Arabia’s current ruler has also played an important role. Since the beginning of his rule in 2005, King Abdullah has opened up numerous opportunities for women. In 2011, women gained the right to vote and be appointed to the Shura Council, a consultative body consisting of 150 members.
An increasing number of women are also working in the private sector. Women have an increasing amount of freedom to work at, and even operate, their own businesses. Women work as hairdressers, beauticians, teachers, nurses, doctors and cashiers. The first female-run law firm opened this year, and Somayya Jabarti was appointed to be the first female editor of daily newspaper The Saudi Gazette.
The media has become an important source of independence for women, and a medium for voicing opinion. Twitter has a variety of campaigns both for and against women’s rights. Female professor Aziza Yousef posted a video of herself driving to showing her opposition against the ban on female driving.
While older individuals may be more committed to traditional Islamic values, the younger generation seems to be more open to change. At least 150,000 students, a large minority of which are women, are studying abroad. This exposure, perhaps, may be opening young peoples’ eyes to new modes of thought.
Lea, a teacher primarily to young men, explained that the views of his students seem to be progressive in the way of women’s rights.
“Their views are far more westernized. People are marrying later, traveling more, and most Arabs I know here are really into the idea of marrying an educated woman and allowing her the choice to work,” Lea said. “Many students even believe women should be allowed to drive. I live in one of the most liberal regions, but I believe the next generation of middle/upper-class Saudi men is ready for change.”
Though change moves slowly, and may seem to retreat in a more traditional direction, Saudi women are gaining ground. Slowly, their expected role is evolving to become a larger part of the country’s economy, labor force and every day society.
– Julia Thomas