By Stanly Johny
March 05, 2018
In the latest in a series of steps aimed at enhancing women’s rights, Saudi Arabia has invited women to join its military. Saudi nationals aged between 25 and 35 were given the opportunity to apply for positions with the rank of soldier in Riyadh, Mecca, al-Qassim and Medina. Earlier this year, women were allowed to attend football matches. Last year, King Salman issued a decree ending the ban on women driving.
Supporters of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, King Salman’s 32-year-old son, say these steps are part of the Prince’s broader reform agenda. After consolidating power, he had reined in the infamous Saudi religious police, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which is empowered with enforcing the kingdom’s strict morality code. Last month, a member of the country’s top clerical body said Saudi women need not wear the Abaya, a full-length, loose-fitting robe. Local reports from Riyadh suggest that social life in the capital has now become more pleasant with the religious police, which often patrols the streets in large SUVs, hardly seen.
Prince Mohammed, whose ambition for the throne is hardly a secret, is hard-selling a new narrative about Saudi Arabia. He’s presenting himself as a reformer and moderniser who could change the way Saudi Arabia lives. Besides these tentative reform measures, he had also arrested several of the kingdom’s princes and senior officials in what the government calls a crackdown on corruption.
Some have bought into this narrative, including The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who called Prince Mohammed’s power grab “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring”. The changes introduced by Prince Mohammed are indeed a big deal by Saudi Arabia’s standards. Lifting the ban on women driving has been a long-standing demand by women activists in the kingdom and abroad.
But if Prince Mohammed wants to go down in history as a champion of social liberalisation, he should take radical steps. For example, Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system, which requires adult women to get permission to travel, work, marry, or even get access to health care, remains intact. Women are also separated from unrelated men. Though the top cleric has said Abayas are not mandatory now, the law requiring women to wear the robes is still in place.
While the government has taken some steps in the realm of women’s rights, its dealings with dissent are the same as those of any authoritarian regime. Last year, there were coordinated crackdowns on government critics. More than a dozen prominent activists were convicted on vague charges and sentenced to lengthy prison terms during the same period, according to Human Rights Watch. The kingdom also executed 133 people between January and early December 2017. Saudi Arabia has to do a lot more to ensure basic rights for its women and end its repressive policies against political and social dissent if it really wants to begin a new journey in liberalisation.