Revolutionary Reforms: Saudi Women’s Driving Journey.

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Five years ago, Jawhara al-Wabili became one of Saudi Arabia’s pioneering women drivers, perceiving this reform as a significant revolution. While some activists dismissed it as mere window-dressing, al-Wabili saw the move as a transformative step facilitated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the conservative kingdom.

Driving Lessons and Female Empowerment

Since then, al-Wabili has generously offered free driving lessons to other women, recognizing the essential role driving plays in a country with limited public transportation. For her, this initiative symbolizes the flourishing rights of women in Saudi Arabia, where they can now pursue diverse careers as ambassadors, bank directors, university administrators, and even astronauts. In fact, Saudi scientist Rayyanah Barnawi participated in a mission to the International Space Station this past May.

Reforms in Daily Life

The impact of these reforms can also be felt in everyday life, particularly with the sidelining of the religious police and the abolition of rules mandating gender segregation in public spaces and the wearing of abaya robes.

Challenges and Human Rights Concerns

However, human rights campaigners express skepticism about the extent of these reforms, pointing out that women have become ensnared in a broader campaign of arrests targeting government critics. Some of the very women who led the campaign for driving licenses are now imprisoned for actions such as not wearing an abaya, dancing in public, or expressing their opinions on social media. This climate of fear and uncertainty raises concerns about the true progress of women’s rights in the country.

Perceptions and Legal Reforms

Saudi officials attempt to highlight the progress made by women, rebranding their nation as open for business and tourism. They emphasize the increased participation of Saudi women in the workforce, which has more than doubled since 2016, reaching 37 percent. While legal changes have challenged traditional gender roles, including the restrictive role of women as solely responsible for raising children, observers caution that reforms on paper do not always translate into practical changes.

Hurdles in Private Life

The reforms often do not extend to the private sphere, particularly within conservative households. The personal status law, touted as progressive, has faced criticism for containing discriminatory provisions against women regarding marriage, divorce, and child-related decisions. Women in conservative families still find themselves at the mercy of their male guardians, limiting their freedom despite the easing of public restrictions.

Remaining Challenges and Activists’ Plight

Speaking out against the remaining obstacles carries risks, as evidenced by recent cases. Women’s rights activist Manahel al-Otaibi was accused of launching a “propaganda campaign” for challenging guardianship laws and the enforced wearing of the abaya. Activists believe that Saudi authorities are primarily focused on improving their international image, leading to continued oppression and arrests, which further tarnish the nation’s reputation.

Despite the progress made, concerns remain regarding the implementation of reforms, and activists strive to bring attention to the ongoing challenges faced by women in Saudi Arabia.

SOURCE: Ref Image from Wall Street Journal

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