As driving ban lifted, Saudi women in crosshairs of change

1 year 1 month 3 weeks ago Saturday, June 23 2018 Jun 23, 2018 Saturday, June 23, 2018 6:21:17 PM CDT June 23, 2018 in News
By: Aya Batrawy, The Associated Press

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Outside a sprawling mall in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, young single men and women walk through an open-air exhibit where Saudi women and traffic police explain the ins and outs of handling a car. Children take a lap around a makeshift course in tiny electric cars as clowns appear on a small stage, dancing for the crowd. A song with a woman's voice blares through the loudspeakers, singing: "I love you Saudia. My love, Saudia."

Just four years ago, this government-sponsored event was an unthinkable scene in the deeply religious and socially conservative country.

But the most visible sign of change came on Sunday, when women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to drive, ending a ban that had stained the kingdom's reputation globally, kept women subjugated in the backseat and hindered the full potential of the country's economic growth.

The move places Saudi women at the heart of a major transformation being spearheaded by the country's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It also places women at the center of a tug-of-war between those agitating for more openings and a religious majority that remains wary of changes that could be influenced by the West.

It was only a few years ago that religious police— known for their long beards and shorter white robes— enforced an austere interpretation of Islam that banned music of any kind in public, much less the sound of a woman's voice on loudspeakers. They could detain groups of unmarried men and women for simply standing around or sitting together. They ensured restaurants and stores closed their doors for daily prayers and waved sticks at women who had their hair or face uncovered, shouting through microphones attached to the tops of their cars as they patrolled the streets.

Unlike previous Saudi monarchs who took cautious, incremental steps to reform the country, King Salman has granted his 32-year-old son and heir, the crown prince, a free hand to usher in dramatic moves that are reshaping the country. Allowing musical concerts, opening movie theaters, easing restrictions on gender segregation and reigning in the powers of the religious police have all been signature reforms of the young prince.

He's seen as the force behind the king's decision to lift the longstanding ban on women driving this Sunday.

"I can say that Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, came at the right time. He is young and motivated," said Lulwa al-Fireiji, speaking at Friday night's event to encourage women to drive.

Al-Fireiji, 60, quickly clarified that while there was "nothing wrong" with previous Saudi rulers, now is the time for change.

"I will get a license, but I won't drive right away because the elders are always scared. But the young people are motivated and we need at this time someone like Mohammed bin Salman - motivated, God bless him, and daring. He will move the country (forward) faster," she said.

Granting women the right to drive is part of a wider blueprint for the future drawn up by the crown prince. In an era of sustained lower oil prices, the government is pushing Saudis to become less reliant on the government for jobs, handouts and subsidies. Some 70 percent of Saudis who work are employed in the public sector and rely on the government for their wages.

Official statistics show that women make up the overwhelming majority of job seekers in Saudi Arabia and that around 34 percent of Saudis seeking employment are between 25 and 29 years old.

The state alone cannot create enough public sector jobs to keep up with the pace of Saudis seeking work, so foreigners are being booted out of jobs at restaurants, banks, cell phone repair shops and many sales floors to make way for Saudis. Companies are required to stack their workforce with a minimum number of Saudi nationals or face heavy fines.

To encourage two-income households, Saudi women are taking on jobs that were once reserved for men at lingerie shops and makeup stores. And Sunday, when they start driving, many will be able to get more easily to work and will no longer need to hire drivers, who often hail from India and Pakistan. Women will even be allowed to work as drivers.

Prince Mohammed is set to inherit a country where more than half of its 20 million citizens are under the age of 25. Many are active on social media, where Saudis are vocal about the pace of change.

Just last week, conservative citizens took to YouTube and Twitter to criticize a Russian circus that included female performers in body-hugging leotards. Before the show could finish its four-day run in Riyadh, the king had fired the head of the entertainment authority.

Under the crown prince, the message pushed by officials is that Saudi Arabia is modernizing, not Westernizing. The prince has branded the reforms as a return to "moderate Islam". Even the country's ultraconservative clerics, who for decades warned against allowing women to work and drive, have toed the line with muted statements of support.

The tightrope the government has to walk between "a shrinking insular and traditionalist majority and a growing progressive and internationalist minority" is a defining feature of modern Saudi Arabia, said a report by the Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based think tank that has links with the Saudi government.
The report said the government maintains a delicate balance between reformers and conservatives by "monopolizing the reform process", pre-empting and suppressing grassroots activism or, on occasion, tolerating it as a safety valve for expressing grievances.

Just last month, the pendulum appeared to swing away from the latter when several prominent women's rights activists who were at the forefront of calls to lift the driving ban were arrested. At least 10 are still being held in an undisclosed location with no access to lawyers.

The arrests highlight how quickly the levers of reform can be pulled back.
"It looks like the only reform they want is the one that comes from above and any sort of calls for changes, no matter how positive they are and will benefit the country, will not be tolerated from below," said Kareem Chehayeb, a researcher at Amnesty International.

Three of the women still detained— Aziza al-Yousef, Loujain al-Hathloul and Eman al-Nafjan— are seen as icons of a larger democratic and civil rights push in the kingdom. The women had also been calling for an end to guardianship laws that give male relatives final say over whether a woman can marry, obtain a passport or travel abroad.

Since their arrest, the women have been branded traitors by state-aligned media. Prosecutors accuse them of working with foreign entities and attempting to harm the interests of the kingdom.

It comes after Prince Mohammed oversaw the arrests of dozens of writers, moderate clerics and others last year for apparently not emphatically supporting his policies, including the Saudi-led war in Yemen and a standoff with Qatar. In November, he further consolidated power when he arbitrarily detained influential businessmen, officials and at least a dozen high-level princes in a purported anti-corruption campaign.

The arrest of the women's rights activists just before women are allowed to drive sends a message that "you are subjects and not citizens" and that the Saudi leadership alone controls when and how change takes shape, said Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

"You could get the idea that OK now we're allowing driving and allowing a real opening, but that kind of encourages women to demand and ask for more," she said. "I think they want to make sure that that is not the message they're communicating. You cannot make demands on the government. The government will decide what policies are best."

More News

Grid
List
COLUMBIA - The Band of Brothers biker group held a fundraiser for the "Mammogram Van" Sunday. The event was... More >>
2 hours ago Sunday, August 18 2019 Aug 18, 2019 Sunday, August 18, 2019 2:02:00 PM CDT August 18, 2019 in News
COOPER COUNTY – The Missouri Department of Transportation will have crews working on Westbound Interstate 70 to replace concrete beginning... More >>
10 hours ago Sunday, August 18 2019 Aug 18, 2019 Sunday, August 18, 2019 5:45:00 AM CDT August 18, 2019 in News
COLUMBIA - Neighbors were awakened by police chasing a vehicle through a west Columbia neighborhood early Sunday morning. KOMU... More >>
13 hours ago Sunday, August 18 2019 Aug 18, 2019 Sunday, August 18, 2019 3:23:00 AM CDT August 18, 2019 in News
COLUMBIA - The Columbia Mall will become home to a second Dillard’s and to a hotel, pending approval by... More >>
19 hours ago Saturday, August 17 2019 Aug 17, 2019 Saturday, August 17, 2019 8:38:00 PM CDT August 17, 2019 in News
COLUMBIA - Vendors and shoppers met Saturday Aug. 17 to exchange items at Columbia Flea Swap. The flea market... More >>
1 day ago Saturday, August 17 2019 Aug 17, 2019 Saturday, August 17, 2019 3:51:00 PM CDT August 17, 2019 in News
COLUMBIA - No one was hurt when house caught fire Saturday morning. Firefighters responded to a home at the... More >>
1 day ago Saturday, August 17 2019 Aug 17, 2019 Saturday, August 17, 2019 3:17:00 PM CDT August 17, 2019 in News
COLUMBIA — Maries County deputies asked the public for help identifying two people who broke into a church and stole... More >>
1 day ago Friday, August 16 2019 Aug 16, 2019 Friday, August 16, 2019 9:45:00 PM CDT August 16, 2019 in News
COLUMBIA - The Cars 4 Kids event scheduled for Saturday has been postponed due to rain in the forecast. Organizers... More >>
1 day ago Friday, August 16 2019 Aug 16, 2019 Friday, August 16, 2019 6:04:00 PM CDT August 16, 2019 in News
COLUMBIA - Over 50 cats and dogs will be available for adoption at the Central Missouri Humane Society for a... More >>
1 day ago Friday, August 16 2019 Aug 16, 2019 Friday, August 16, 2019 5:47:00 PM CDT August 16, 2019 in News
COLUMBIA - One Columbia mother said a school bus driver let her son get off the bus more than a... More >>
1 day ago Friday, August 16 2019 Aug 16, 2019 Friday, August 16, 2019 4:41:00 PM CDT August 16, 2019 in News
JEFFERSON CITY - A U.S. District Judge ruled against State Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville, in a lawsuit about her... More >>
2 days ago Friday, August 16 2019 Aug 16, 2019 Friday, August 16, 2019 4:24:00 PM CDT August 16, 2019 in News
COLUMBIA - A preliminary autopsy performed on Friday could not determine the gender or age of the infant remains found... More >>
2 days ago Friday, August 16 2019 Aug 16, 2019 Friday, August 16, 2019 3:46:00 PM CDT August 16, 2019 in News
KANSAS CITY (AP) — A series of earthquakes shook parts of Kansas on Friday morning near Hutchinson, knocking... More >>
2 days ago Friday, August 16 2019 Aug 16, 2019 Friday, August 16, 2019 3:38:00 PM CDT August 16, 2019 in News
COLUMBIA - The City of Columbia apologized after a community relations worker took a selfie at a crime scene. ... More >>
2 days ago Friday, August 16 2019 Aug 16, 2019 Friday, August 16, 2019 2:21:00 PM CDT August 16, 2019 in News
VIENNA - A relief fund has been established for six firefighters injured Friday fighting a fire turned explosion at a... More >>
2 days ago Friday, August 16 2019 Aug 16, 2019 Friday, August 16, 2019 12:34:00 PM CDT August 16, 2019 in News
COLUMBIA - MoDOT is teaming up with a major player in the ride-share industry as part of this year's 'Drive... More >>
2 days ago Friday, August 16 2019 Aug 16, 2019 Friday, August 16, 2019 3:14:00 AM CDT August 16, 2019 in News
SEDALIA – Governor Mike Parson told reporters Thursday he is considering a special session. The session would involve tax... More >>
2 days ago Thursday, August 15 2019 Aug 15, 2019 Thursday, August 15, 2019 9:14:00 PM CDT August 15, 2019 in News
HALLSVILLE - Local businesses, churches, and families painted the town purple and gold to welcome students back on their first... More >>
2 days ago Thursday, August 15 2019 Aug 15, 2019 Thursday, August 15, 2019 7:56:00 PM CDT August 15, 2019 in News
Columbia, MO
Broken Clouds 87°
5pm 89°
6pm 88°
7pm 85°
8pm 81°