SEATTLE — A major battle for equality in Saudi Arabia was won on June 24, when the country’s notorious women’s driving ban was lifted. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman declared June 24 “Driving Day” as part of his efforts to modernize the country. It serves as one of several new reforms made by the Crown Prince over the past four years, in a country where women were only given the right to vote in 2015.
The end of the ban is a victory for Saudi women, but not a clear-cut one. In May, one month before lifting the ban, Bin Salman began arresting women’s rights activists who had previously protested the driving ban and received international attention for their actions. The prince’s actions highlight the problems that still plague Saudi women, predominantly due to the guardianship system in place in the country. The guardianship system requires that every Saudi woman has a male guardian (usually their father until they are married, in which case their husband takes on the role of guardian). This system makes it impossible for women to work, marry, or travel without the consent of a male relative.
But despite the intimidation that Saudi women have faced and continue to face, there are influential and inspiring women in the country who are making their names known and effecting change. These are three women to watch in Saudi Arabia, women who are defying the odds and changing society.
Director Haifaa al-Mansour One of the Women to Watch in Saudi Arabia
Haifaa Al-Mansour is Saudi Arabia’s most famous director. In April, she was one of three women invited to be part of the kingdom’s General Authority for Culture, a government body with the goal of developing the arts in Saudi Arabia. Al-Mansour directed Saudi Arabia’s first Oscar-nominated film, Wadjda, which features a 10-year-old female protagonist who joins a Quran recitation competition to win a bike (that she is not allowed to ride due to gender restrictions in the country).
Al-Mansour’s most recent film, Mary Shelley, details the life of the famed Frankenstein author. Movie theaters have recently opened up again in Saudi Arabia for the first time in 35 years, so al-Mansour was able to watch the film when it premiered in Saudi Arabia in June. She explained in an interview with Vanity Fair that she was inspired by the “Time’s Up” movement that has exploded in Hollywood: “It is hard to stress how big the changes are for women in Saudi Arabia, to be allowed to drive and work in public. Seeing women around the world stand up for themselves through the ‘Time’s Up’ movement will definitely resonate with Saudi women and—I hope—inspire them to approach these issues more themselves.”
Raha Moharrak Climbs Mountains to Inspire Other Saudi Women
Raha Moharrak is the first Saudi woman to climb the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on each of the seven continents. Moharrak works as a graphic designer but her passion is mountain climbing. She started off with Mount Kilimanjaro before deciding that she would climb the other six. The mountaineer explained in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar Arabia: “For my first mountain I got a lot of negative response… you’re Saudi, you’re a girl, how can you do this? … Ironically these [comments]were the reasons I decided to climb in the end. This is the reason why I said, you know what, I’m going to end up doing this. Because I refuse for anyone to dictate my capability.”
Moharrak hopes to serve as a symbol to other Saudi girls that they can accomplish anything they want, despite the views of many in their conservative society. “If a Saudi woman managed to touch the sky, what makes their dreams too far from reach?” she said.
Loujain al-Hathloul a Key Women’s Rights Activist in Saudi Arabia
At 28 years old, Loujain al-Hathloul is a prominent women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia. She was recently jailed along with six other women’s rights activists. The timing of their arrest came as the prince announced that the driving ban would be lifted. They were arrested for posing a threat to state security, according to the government. Hathloul faces a 20-year jail term.
As a prominent face of the movement for the right to drive, Hathloul has been targeted in the past. Previously, she was detained for 73 days for resisting the driving ban and driving into Saudi Arabia from the UAE. She ran for office in November 2015, but her name was never added to the ballot.
There have been many, however fragile, strides for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia in the past months. While the prince’s motives in lifting the driving ban are murky, there is a strong sentiment that Saudi Arabia is becoming a safer place to be a woman. This is important progress for a country that consistently ranks low in the worst countries in the world to be a woman. These women to watch in Saudi Arabia are making a name for themselves in the world and in their own communities.
– Evann Orleck-Jetter