WOMEN IN SAUDI ARABIA:
Changing the guard
The kingdom may let women travel freely.
Some may never come back…
NICKI MINAJ spoke, and Saudi Arabia listened. That is not quite what happened with the scantily clad feminist rapper from New York—though recent events make it a tempting theory. This month Saudi officials disclosed that they want to loosen “guardianship”rules that force women to seek a male relative’s permission to marry, travel abroad or accept many jobs. The proposed change would end the travel restriction, which also applies to men under the age of 21. The idea leaked on the same day that Ms Minaj (pictured) cancelled a gig in Saudi Arabia, citing its oppression of women and gay people.
IF THE new rules take effect later this year, as planned, both sexes will be free to leave the country once they reach 18. Such a shift would be controversial, and raise awkward questions about the broader cultural changes desired by the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman.
THESE CHANGES would have been difficult to imagine five years ago. Last June Saudi Arabia lifted a decades-long ban on women driving. In 2017 King Salman decreed that women could seek government services, such as education and health care, without a man’s consent. The rules on segregating the sexes have been unofficially relaxed, and Prince Muhammad has suggested that women need not wear flowing abayas (full-length gowns) in public.
ALL OF this has passed without much public brouhaha, in part because anyone who might complain is in prison. Police have arrested both clerics who oppose the changes and liberal activists who want more. Though the driving decision had its detractors, hidebound husbands and fathers can still coerce their charges into staying at home. A recent YouGov poll found that of the vast majority of Saudi women who have not applied for a driving licence, 16% refrained because of objections from a male relative.
CHANGING THE guardianship laws would prove more controversial, particularly in conservative areas outside the big cities. Some fear it could lead to more cases like that of Rahaf Mohammed, a Saudi teenager who fled to Thailand in January to escape her family. Relatives unsuccessfully tried to bring her back (she received asylum in Canada). Other young women followed her lead. Hence the cautious manner of the announcement. While the driving ban was lifted by official decree, news of the guardianship change was leaked as a trial balloon—first to the Saudi newspaper Okaz and then to foreign outlets.
PRINCE MUHAMMAD has not yet had much luck overhauling the Saudi economy. Unemployment remains high and the private sector is not creating jobs. His cultural changes have gone further, but they too have been uneven. In June a firm based in the United Arab Emirates tried to open an alcohol-free nightclub in Jeddah, the most cosmopolitan Saudi city. Officials shut it down on opening night, though it has since reopened as a “lounge”(same venue, less dancing).
OR THERE is the case of Ms Minaj, who was due to perform at a music festival in Jeddah this month. She seemed an odd fit for a puritanical theocracy, given her raunchy outfits and lyrics. (“He toss my salad like his name Romaine”is one of her milder lines.) Days before the concert she backed out. Hoping to save face, the Saudis claimed it was in fact they who disinvited her. The episode provoked wry commentary on social media. In one widely shared video, a young Saudi woman asked why she had to wear an abaya while Ms Minaj was free to come “shake her ass”.
IT IS a fair question. The prince’s behaviour is idiosyncratic: he jails reformers even as he decrees reforms. He justifies some social reforms as economic necessities (if Saudis can go to concerts at home, they won’t spend their money abroad). The public have no say. Some young Saudis are enjoying this moment of relative openness; others flee into exile, for reasons both personal and political. Ironically, by letting women travel, Prince Muhammad may allow some to leave and never return.■
(THE ECONOMIST, JULY 20th, 2019)