In Saudi Arabia, women are considered second-class citizens. They cannot drive or travel without the authorisation of a male guardian: a brother, father, cousin or even a son. But faced with the fall in oil prices and the aspirations of a young generation hooked on social media, the authorities are gradually relaxing the rules. FRANCE 24’s team reports from the kingdom.
In December 2015, amid much publicity, Saudi Arabia held historic elections for municipal councils. For the first time, women had the right to vote and to run for office. Although this was a clear step forward, it remained symbolic as only 21 women were elected to a total of more than 2,000 seats. Since then, things are not necessarily going smoothly for these women in the town halls where they are supposed to have a voice.
In reality, the change is mainly driven by the Saudi authorities’ need to diversify the economy, which is completely dependent on oil revenues. Today, Saudi women are obtaining access to areas that were previously forbidden to them. Some are now lawyers, pharmacists or even appointed to the head of the stock exchange or a large bank.
Another factor that explains this feminine revolution is the demographic reality of the kingdom. Currently, 70 percent of Saudis are under 30 years of age. They are seeking room to breathe in a society suffocated by tradition and religion. Faced with these aspirations, the authorities have decided to relax certain rules and promote sports and entertainment for women. They have also ordered the infamous religious police to slightly loosen their grip on society. Young people are now able to take some liberties with traditional outfits and customs.
For the few activists who continue to fight for true female emancipation, these changes are largely cosmetic. They say the country needs drastic measures, including the end of the male guardianship system and the ban on women driving. Although these subjects appear ultra-sensitive, even some figures close to power admit the changes are necessary. But the road to equality for Saudi women is still long and full of pitfalls.