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The times they are a-changin’ in Saudi Arabia

Women today can exercise the freedom and empowerment to go on about their lives



Riyadh at night: There has been a slew of reforms in Saudi Arabia over the years
Image Credit: Agency

A university in the capital city of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is hosting a conference on female empowerment. The Imam Mohammad bin Saud Islamic University will hold a two-day meet to highlight how Saudi Arabia ‘has helped empower women through national reforms, government policies, and private initiatives.’

The Vice-rector of the Female Student Affairs, a female heading the organising committee for the conference told a local daily that “Saudi women have taken great strides towards empowerment, thanks to the legislation and laws issued to enhance women’s position and protect their social and personal rights and ensure their participation as decision-makers.”

She added that ‘the conference will bring together more than 60 experts, ministers, and Saudi universities. It will explore seven themes and indicators of women empowerment in local and international organisations, and many prominent female figures will participate in the conference.”

Much of the focus in the conference will be on the legislative reforms instituted by King Salman and the Crown prince since taking over in 2015. It will dwell on the new horizons and challenges open to women today that were simply dreams in the dust not so long ago.

A chequered history

Following their graduation, young men of yesteryears sometimes wanted to instill their brand and value of faith in various ways and means. Some joined the religious bodies that would periodically issue edicts or fatwas to rehabilitate what they saw in their minds as an errant society. Others took to the call of the much-feared Commission for the Propagation of Good and the Prevention of Evil, or in short, the Saudi vice cops or Hai’a as they were known.

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Those fresh graduates had no inkling about female empowerment, rights of women, or anything else related to women’s reforms. In their perception, women were meant to be cloaked in secrecy away from the eyes of society and safely ensconced in the confines of the four walls of their homes. Their predecessors fought against the idea of girls going to school back in the mid-century but King Faisal at the time prevailed.

Following the attempted takeover of the Grand Mosque in Makkah back in 1979 by hard-core zealots, life suddenly changed for Saudi women. Barriers that had previously been non-existent suddenly appeared.

The Hai’s that was previously relegated to basic duties gradually began increasing their footprint across the kingdom, from towns and villages to the metropolitan cities. Although there was some resistance, it was muted as the Hai’; a made it a point of being accompanied by an armed policeman as they set about admonishing the citizenry for what they perceived as a deviation from religious norms.

Women, unfortunately, were at the forefront of their target and many practices previously alien to many Saudis began slowly becoming part of our lives.

The mingling of the sexes was not tolerated in any form and there were calls to have female-only hospitals and malls. Those that took to the call did not do so well. Females were confined to the teaching or medical profession only at the time as very few employers outside these genres would dare risk hiring a female and incurring the wrath of the religious police who had been known to drag employers to prison for such infractions.

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Many women, frustrated in their efforts and ambitions to open their own businesses without male dependency or guardianship fled to neighbouring countries where they flourished. They also enjoyed the dignity and freedom afforded to them, something they found missing in their own country.

Today, the dean of the university says that “Saudi women have enjoyed many rights while many historic and key decisions were issued to enhance women’s role in society and empower them to be an active partner in national development,” but such had not been the case no so long ago. I’m not sure what this dean would have said two or there decades ago.

Yes indeed, for those who had lived through those hard years as I call them, years where women were extremely marginalised and for no reason other than through the applications of a harsh interpretation of religion, applications that were strictly enforced as law with very little objection have suddenly and in the briefest of times disappeared.

Thanks to King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, women today can exercise the freedom and empowerment to go on about their lives that previously were just dreamed or imagined of.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena