Dubai: To Saudi women, the past few months have been simply unbelievable—drastic social and economic changes have swept the country in a short period of time.
This year, and for the first time, Saudi women celebrated International Women’s Day by holding triathlons after major restrictions on fitness programmes were lifted.
Saudi universities introduced sports programmes for women and in June women will be driving.
More important changes are currently being studied for implementation including doing away with strict guardianship rules which limit women from traveling, going to school or working without permission of her father or husband.
“Change is happening at such an incredible speed that some people can’t believe it is actually happening,” Saudi women activist Hatoon Al Fassi said in an interview with Gulf News.
“I believe these changes are genuine and they aim to introducing real qualitative change, which will give a boost to the leadership,” she said in an interview on the sidelines of her participation in Emirates literature Festival earlier this month.
Al Fassi, who comes from a prominent family from Makkah, was encouraged by her family to “think independently about women’s rights,” as she was quoted as saying in one press interview.
She has a Bachleors in history from King Saud University (KSU), and a PhD in ancient women’s history from the University of Manchester.
Having been active in women’s right to vote campaigns for the municipal elections held in Saudi Arabia, she is one of the most prominent women activists in the country.
The ambitious social change in the country comes at the directive of Saudi King Salman and guidance of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who is personally leading his country through an ambitious Vision2030 programme which involves drastic social and economic change.
The latest gain for Saudi women was the recent announcement by the Ministry of Justice that divorced women are no longer required to file a lawsuit for custody of their children if uncontested.
They also have been granted the right to carry out official formalities from their children.
The changes have been applauded by activists in the country.
“There was a realisation that women were an overlooked segment, and that it is about time to make use of that segment,” Al Fassi said.
The status of Saudi women has long tainted the country’s image in front of the world.
Women not being able to drive and other restrictions on their freedom of movement were heavily criticised by international rights groups.
With the changes, Saudi Arabia’s image has drastically improved abroad, Al Fassi says.
She believes the country stands to benefit economically as well.
“Saudi Arabia had the lowest participation globally for women economic participation,” she explained.
She expects women to drastically boost their economic participation when they are able to drive in June which will facilitate their ability to work.
According to Saudi press reports, economic participation of Saudi women has increased from 4.2 per cent in 1990 to more than 13 per cent in 2015.
Additionally, Saudi Ministry of Labour announced in March that it was moving forward with plans to set up nurseries in workplaces and day-care centers to create “a safe and friendly working environment for women,” in order to increase women economic participation.
Increasing the number of women in the Saudi workforce from 22 per cent to 30 per cent is one of goals of the Vision 2030.
Decisions taken in the past few months after Mohammad Bin Salman was appointed Crown Prince last June, came in response to both external and internal factors, said observers and activists.
“Demographic changes played a major role as there was much pressure from the youth to introduce change. Women constitute half of the youth,” said Al Fassi.
“Those women have demands. They want to live a normal life without having to travel abroad,” she said.
Commenting on society’s readiness to see a more active women role in public life, Al Fassi replied, “this question always irritates me, how much the society is willing to accept and how much it is not willing to accept. We do not have real statistics. Previous studies included only voices of those who can speak out and express themselves. Today, everybody speaks.”
“No one can clearly say whether society is willing or unwilling but it will have to accept it (women rights)”.