Saudi women hope right to drive paves road to bigger freedoms

On International Women's Day, Saudi women are celebrating some of their hard-fought freedoms - and hoping for more.

Will male-guardianship rules be the next to go?

In recent years, Saudi women have felt more liberated to express themselves in public, as seen in this image taken near the Riyadh dam. Photographer Maheda Al Ajroush had to ask the girls' father for permission to take the picture. (Maheda Al Ajroush)

There's an advertisement making the rounds on Twitter that features a GIF of a woman's purse that has spilled onto a table. The splayed contents include dark sunglasses, red lipstick and a bottle of perfume — and then, a key fob for a luxury car slides into the frame, seemingly completing the picture.

The ad, which is a subtle overture to Saudi women, would have been unheard of a year ago. It represents huge change and opportunity in a country that has been extremely repressive toward women.

Car companies such as Jaguar, Ford and Nissan are looking to capitalize on a potential new market of women drivers after Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, announced that starting in June, women in the kingdom would be allowed to drive.

The 32-year-old prince wants to show his country is liberal, modern and open for business beyond the oil sector. Saudi Arabian women have embraced the move on driving, but hope it brings other, more substantial changes, too.

Women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to drive starting in June. (Amer Hilabi/AFP/Getty Images)

"The car is only a symbol of our many, many needs at every level," said Maheda Al Ajroush, a psychoanalyst and photographer who lives in the capital, Riyadh. She said that as a Saudi woman, she is starting to see more job opportunities and a greater freedom to partake in simple things like entertainment, the latter having been mostly forbidden in the kingdom up until last year.

In December, she went to a concert by Greek musician Yanni at Princess Noura University in Riyadh. "For women and men to go out to a Yanni concert and be able to share the experience was really awesome," said Al Ajroush. "To scream and holler and stand up and clap is something that we are not accustomed to."

Changing times

Al Ajroush is a 30-year veteran of the fight for Saudi women to drive. She was one of 47 women who demonstrated for that right during a famous protest in Riyadh in 1990. The women were arrested. Clerics called them out as evil and some were fired from their jobs. Police came to Al Ajroush's house and burned all her photos.

Maheda Al Ajroush was one of 47 Saudi women who were arrested in Riyadh in 1990 while demonstrating for the right to drive. (Submitted by Maheda Al Ajroush)

How times have changed. Now, Al Ajroush has a psychoanalysis practice that is booming because clients want to visit the "liberal" therapist.

Al Ajroush is on social media, uploading photos of everything from ancient petroglyphs to modern-day Saudi women wearing the black abaya, a loose-fitting overgarment that covers most of the body. Saudis love posting commentary on social media, but they know that any outright criticism of the royal family is a no-go zone. 

There's a huge cohort of millennials living in Saudi Arabia and yearning for change. Seventy per cent of the population is under 30, and many have taken to Snapchat and Instagram with great gusto to express their views on books, makeup, cars and the changing norms in their country. 

Tasneem Alsultan, a 32-year-old photographer born in the U.S. but based out of Dammam, in Saudi Arabia's eastern province, has been documenting the changes in women's lives for the past three years on her Instagram account, as well as for international publications such as the New York Times and National Geographic.

This Saudi woman, named Afrah, married a Yemeni man. While Saudi families often object to women marrying men from other tribes, Afrah's father did not. Still, Afrah acknowledged 'my Yemeni son won't have the same privileges as a Saudi.' (Tasneem Asultan)

"In Saudi Arabia, everyone is a Kardashian," said Alsultan, referring to the way Saudi youth post constant updates with their phones. Although Saudi women are feeling emboldened to cover up less than they used to, the pictures they post to social media are still fairly modest by Western standards. For example, they'll post partially obscured photos of their faces or pictures of their hands, holding objects such as food or makeup.

"My generation does not give a crap about society rules the way my parents did," Alsultan said. "We are a little bit more selfish. My mother had to care about what the neighbours were saying. My generation does not care. And I can dress the way I want."

'In Saudi Arabia, everyone is a Kardashian,' said photographer Tasneem Alsultan, seen here in a self-portrait. (Tasneem Alsultan)

Explaining the law

When Nasreen Alissa finished her schooling in Canada and settled in Riyadh in 2012, she noticed two things about Saudi women: they were glued to their smartphones, and when they found out she was a lawyer, they'd often ask her basic questions about their rights.

The laws protecting women in Saudi Arabia can be confusing, so Alissa created an app called Know Your Rights to help explain basic law on a range of issues related to women, including divorce and child custody.

The app Know Your Rights was created by lawyer Nasreen Alissa to help women navigate the often confusing Saudi legal system. (Know Your Rights)

Alissa applauds the new right to drive, but sees it as a top-down approach, where flashy things like driving and entertainment are changing while fundamental laws and rights have not.

"From a legal perspective, nothing has changed since MBS came in," Alissa said, using the popular acronym for Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. She believes the government is taking a slow and steady approach in order to not rattle the conservative clerics, some of whom are still hostile to Western-style freedoms.

"The country is in the process of changing, so [the government doesn't] want to overwhelm people," Alissa said.

One notable exception is that the religious police has been stripped of its powers over women. They can no longer rap a woman's knuckles for showing too much hair or skin. They can also no longer stop women from walking on the streets without a male guardian.

"There is more freedom of movement. I can go out for coffee and relax. And I have the ability to get out there and walk in the streets and not be harassed," said Alissa.

Aljazi Alhossaini, from Dariya, is a retired university administrator who is one of many women in Saudi Arabia running for municipal office for the first time. (Tasneem Asultan)

As a symbol of more freedom, Saudi Arabia is celebrating International Women's Day on March 8, only the second time it has done so.

"Last year, it was the first time," said Al Ajroush. "It was exciting to have the government involved, regardless of what it stands for or what it has done."

'Just asking the questions'

Like her peers, Alsultan is still respectful of the norms of Saudi society, religion and government, but her photos implicitly acknowledge the tension between tradition and some of the newer freedoms.

"A lot of people will say, 'Why are you questioning things? We have to follow the rules.' I say, 'Yeah, but I'm not criticizing, I am just asking the questions.' Some people think I am mocking them."

Alsultan, who has travelled extensively and driven cars outside her country, equates a woman's right to do so in Saudi Arabia to "emotional freedom."

"We hope it will open doors to something else, like not having legal guardianship," she said.

Every Saudi woman still has a legal male guardian, be it her father, her husband or even her son, who must sign off on travel, education and work. If a woman leaves the house for more than 24 hours, the guardian can file a disappearance report with police. The woman can be jailed for disobedience.

"Guardianship is a system which prevents women from being adult," said Al Ajroush. "She is completely monitored and her entire life is dictated by her guardian."

Saudi women attend the AFC Champions League group stage football match between Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal and UAE's Al Ain at King Saud University Stadium in Riyadh, on February 13, 2018. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

"He has to permit you to leave the country, to get a passport, to allow your kid to go to school, even for medical surgery," said Alsultan.

She said she has been privileged with respect to legal guardianship, because her ex-husband allowed her to travel for her work. Her father, who is her current guardian, is able to sign off on many things online.

"Before it was all in person, the man had to go in person," she said. "Now, my dad has a password and can sign off online, and he did it in a way that I can travel whenever I want."

Still, Alsultan's ex-husband has to approve everything to do with her two daughters, a sign that for all the recent gains in freedom, there are still a lot of constraints on women in the Gulf Kingdom.

"Saudi women are stronger than any other women, because there are so many obstacles, and they find ways around everything," she said.

Activists fighting for over 25 years to get archaic law struck down 0:49

About the Author

Sylvia Thomson is a producer with the CBC in Toronto. She spent several years as a producer covering politics in Washington, D.C., and Ottawa and has covered major international stories.