Saudi Arabia says it wants to modernize, but it still freaks out over a woman in a skirt

This week, a woman in Saudi Arabia was arrested after a Snapchat video showed her wearing a skirt and crop top. Professor and activist Shahrzad Mojab says acts of rebellion like this are crucial for bringing about change in Saudi Arabia.
Three stills taken from an online video of the Saudi Arabian model Khulood, who was arrested for wearing 'immodest clothing' after the clip went viral over the weekend of July 15, 2017. (Khulood/Snapchat)

This week, a woman in Saudi Arabia was arrested after a Snapchat video showed her violating the country's strict, conservative dress code.

The country's modesty laws require women to wear long, black cloaks called abayas, usually paired with the hijab (headscarf) or niqab (which leaves a slit for the eyes).

In the video, the woman is wearing a miniskirt and a cropped top that shows her midriff and arms. Her hair is uncovered.

The video went viral, sparking a Twitter hashtag that called for the woman's arrest.


As University of Toronto professor Shahrzad Mojab tells Day 6 guest-host Marcia Young, videos like this one are important tools in the fight for women's rights in Saudi.

"I call them subversive acts of women, and I'm seeing them on social media regularly," she says, offering examples of women dancing on beaches or in the streets of Tehran without their veil.

Mojab is an activist and an academic who specializes in gender and women's studies in the Middle East. She says people are fascinated with this type of video.

"I think it's about how daring these women are in broadcasting and sharing their acts of resistance and disobedience with a larger population," Mojab says.

Saudi Arabia's modesty laws require women wear long, black cloaks called abayas, usually paired with the hijab (headscarf) or niqab (which leaves a slit for the eyes). (REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser)


Mojab also points out that the videos can be dangerous for the women who appear in them.

"There is a lot of disapproval and sometimes violent reactions and harassment," she says. Arrests are common and punishments include lashings, floggings and fines.

The woman in the miniskirt, identified as "Model Khulood," was released shortly after she told investigators that the video was posted on social media without her knowledge.

If you are moving forward, you need to give women rights to their own bodies, to their own sexuality.- Shahrzad   Mojab

A statement from the Saudi Centre for International Communications says "she was released without charge and the case has been closed by the prosecutor."

Saudi Arabia's religious police also released a statement on Twitter saying they were looking into the matter.


New Crown Prince brings promise of change

In the Kingdom, a woman needs permission from a male guardian (father, husband, son or other relative) to work, travel, or go to school — and even for some medical procedures.  

The outcry against the video reveals how powerful and widespread some of these conservative views are in the kingdom, despite recent moves by Saudi Arabia to modernize and loosen some rules.

In May, a royal decree ordered government agencies to list the services women can seek without permission from a male guardian. It is not clear yet which government services will become available to women, but there is hope the move will lead to greater economic and even social autonomy.

"This is the result of decades of step-by-step pushing the boundaries of the Saudi Arabian state," Mojab says.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sits during an allegiance pledging ceremony in Mecca, Saudi Arabia in June. (Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court)

There is also a more moderate, reformist King in place and an even newer Crown Prince. As Mojab points out, historically, these are the conditions under which changes typically take place in the Middle East.

"When the son of a new King comes into power, like Morocco for example or Jordan, we see a little bit of the opening."

A few members of the royal family have advocated for the modernization of some elements of the country's Islamic law. Women in Saudi Arabia voted and ran for office for the first time in 2015, and a growing number of women are entering the workforce.


Women hold the key to Saudi Arabia's future

Mohammad bin Salman is the country's new Crown Prince and the man credited with formulating Vision 2030, an ambitious plan to adjust the kingdom's economy away from oil dependency.

Mojab says Saudi Arabia needs women in order to make the plan work, but the country's strict interpretation of Islamic law won't allow for the freedom women experience in other parts of the world.

"This is the contradiction that women experience daily. That state is now also challenged by it."

Saudi Arabia's new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology allows women to live and study free from some of the social restrictions they face outside the campus. (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology)

"If you are moving forward, you need to give women rights to their own bodies, to their own sexuality," Mojab says, adding that women need to participate actively and intellectually in the life of the country.

More than 50 per cent of Saudis are under 25 years old — and of this young generation, women are the majority of college graduates and hold more advanced degrees than men.


Don't expect major changes soon

The push for greater women's rights is happening in Saudi Arabia, Mojab says, but it's happening slowly.  

She believes videos like the one of the young woman in the miniskirt forces a dialogue and generates more support from outside the kingdom.

"I think in her imagination, this is how she would like to be and how she would like to represent herself. I think it's beautiful to see that," says Mojab. 

Still, she says we are very far away from significant changes to laws that would allow women to wear miniskirts and crop tops without punishment.

To hear the full interview with Shahrzad Mojab, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.