Saudi Arabia has finally lifted the ban on women driving – which means that, for the very first time in the Gulf kingdom’s history, women will be able to drive without fear of being arrested or issued a fine.
Prince Khaled bin Salman, speaking at a small news conference at the Saudi embassy in Washington, dubbed the decree a “historic big moment” for his people.
“I think our society is ready,” he added. “This is the right time to do the right thing.”
Yes, Saudi women will finally be able to apply for their own driving licenses without having to secure the permission of their male guardians. And, yes, they will finally be granted the freedom of movement that they deserve.
However, rules that govern the guardianship of women continue to restrict many aspects of every day life for the country's female population.
The World Economic Forum's 2016 Global Gender Gap report put it at 141 out of 145 countries – which is due, in part, to the fact that women must have the permission of a male guardian to work, study, travel or marry.
Here are just some of the things that Saudi women are still not allowed to do:
1. Try on any clothing in shops
According to Maureen Dowd in A Girl’s Guide to Saudi Arabia, women can’t try on clothing as they shop. “The mere thought of a disrobed woman behind a dressing-room door is apparently too much for men to handle,“ she wrote.
2. Read an uncensored magazine
Furthermore, according to Dowd, all magazines are censored – similarly the same goes for the UAE. Images that are deemed to be too explicit are inked out with black marker.
3. Compete freely in sports
In 2016, the country proposed hosting an Olympic Games – but without women.
“Our society can be very conservative,“ said Prince Fahad bin Jalawi al-Saud, a consultant to the Saudi Olympic Committee. ”It has a hard time accepting that women can compete in sports”, according to the Telegraph.
However, they did send two women to compete in the 2012 Olympics, and in 2016 they sent four.
4. Mix with men whom they’re not related to
Women have to be careful of how much time they spend with men whom they’re not related to. As such, the “majority of public buildings, including offices, banks and universities, have separate entrances for the different sexes,” according to the Telegraph. Furthermore, “unlawful mixing will lead to criminal charges being brought against both parties, but women typically face harsher punishment.”
5. Seek medical treatment
Until May 2017, women had to seek the permission of their male guardian to gain medical treatments and surgery, according to the Independent.
6. Gain custody of their children
In cases of divorce, “women are only allowed custody of their children until they reach the age of seven (boys) and nine (girls),” according to the Independent.
7. Dress how they wish
Under Islamic law, women cannot dress in a way that will “show off their beauty” as such they must cover their hair and bodies. The majority of women wear an abaya, a headscarf, hijab, niqab, and/or a burqa. The law is enforced on a day to day basis by “religious police or zealous volunteers”, according to the The Economist.
Although in recent years the dress code has loosened by allowing women to add embellishments and various discrete decorative add-ons, along with different cuts and colours, to the traditional dress.
8. Get divorced or decide to marry
Women can’t marry or file for a divorce without a male relative’s approval. And when a woman wants to marry a foreigner she “must obtain approval to do by the ministry of interior, and marriage to non-Muslims is so difficult as to be impossible”, according to the Independent.
9. Travel outside of the country
Women can’t travel or leave the country without a male chaperone, according to USA Today.
10. Open a bank account
It’s not possible to open a bank account without the permission of a man, according to The Guardian.
11. Go swimming
Women can’t use public swimming pools that welcome men. They can, however, swim in pools and go to spas that are assigned for women-only use.
Arlene Getz, Reuters editor, recalled her experience of trying to use a pool at a hotel in the country’s capital, Riyadh: “As a woman, I wasn’t even allowed to look at them (‘there are men in swimsuits there,’ a hotel staffer told me with horror) - let alone use them.”
12. Receive an equal inheritance
Women usually only receive half the inheritance their brothers are entitled to, according to the Telegraph.
13. Receive a fair trial
The testimony of a woman is only worth half a man’s in Saudi Arabia’s legal system, according to the Telegraph. A woman is given the same legal rights as a child, therefore she’s not truly considered to be an adult.
14. Go anywhere without a male chaperone
Within the country, women must be accompanied by a male guardian at all times – not matter what they’re doing. A male guardian is usually (but not always) a husband, brother, uncle or even a woman’s son.
Now, activists in Saudi are campaigning for the removal of male guardianship. With the hashtag #IAmMyOwnGuardian trending on Twitter it’s the next thing to watch as women’s rights activists tackle it. And it’s “the most significant impediment to realising women’s rights in the country“, according to Human Rights Watch.
15. Seek justice
Activist Madawi al-Rasheed tells The Guardian that, should a Saudi woman be abused by family members, she cannot rely on the government to seek justice, as official agencies hesitate to interfere in “family matters”.
“When they do, it is often on the side of the abusers,” she adds.
Images: iStock / Janko Ferlic