Jawhara al-Wabili, who has been one of Saudi Arabia’s first female drivers for five years, sees the reform as revolutionary, although some activists see it as window dressing.
“As soon as I was authorized, I started driving,” the 55-year-old from the central city of Breida proudly told AFP, recalling a milestone that attracted global attention and was announced by conservative Crown Prince Mohammed bin Laden. Salman is the de facto ruler of the kingdom’s sweeping social transformations that he has rapidly pushed through.
Wabili continues to offer free driving lessons to other women, sharing skills she believes are vital in a country with a severe lack of public transportation.
She said it was just one example of women’s rights flourishing in recent years, enabling them to become ambassadors, bank directors, university administrators and even astronauts. Saudi scientist Rayyanah Barnawi took part in a mission to the International Space Station in May this year.
These changes can also be felt in everyday life, especially now that the religious police have been sidelined and rules requiring gender segregation and the wearing of robes in public places have been abolished.
But some human rights activists have expressed doubts about the extent to which the reforms will actually be implemented, stressing that women have been caught up in a wider arrest campaign targeting government critics.
Their ranks include some of the women who have led the driver’s license movement.
“We’ve got more and more women in jail, either for not wearing a robe, or for dancing in public, or for tweeting out their opinions, whatever the subject, even unemployment,” he said. Lina al-Hathloul, director of monitoring and communications, said she works for the rights group ALQST.
“We’re really in a constant state of fear where people don’t know what’s really going on or if they’re allowed to do something.”
Unsurprisingly, Saudi officials have sought to draw attention to the progress women have made in an attempt to reshape the long-closed nation, known primarily for being the world’s largest crude oil exporter, into one open to business and tourists.
At events such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, they claimed that the percentage of Saudi women in the workforce has more than doubled since 2016, from 17% to 37%.
Najah Alotaibi, a London-based Saudi analyst, said: “With this momentous decision, we’ve seen all the policies that come with it that challenge the traditional role of women in Saudi society, and that’s a big challenge. Let them play only one role – raising children.”
The new reality shakes tourists from the moment they step off the plane, in many cases having their passports stamped by smiling, English-speaking female customs officers.
As they traveled across the country, they encountered women who drove for Uber, worked as mechanics and even drove high-speed trains that ferried pilgrims to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.
What happened in their own homes, however, may have been a different story.
“All of these reforms are legal changes – they are reforms on paper, but that doesn’t automatically mean they are reforms in practice,” said Susan Seikali of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
The long-awaited personal status law, which came into force last year, has been called “progressive” by Riyadh but has been criticized for containing what Human Rights Watch called “discriminatory provisions against women in matters of marriage, divorce and child decisions.”
Hala al-Dawsari, a Saudi activist based in the United States, pointed out that in conservative families, women are still at the mercy of male guardians.
Some women, she said, “are fantasizing that because of the opening up of public spaces, because of the loosening of restrictions on women’s dress codes and gender mixing, they can now move more freely through those spaces.”
But many remain “victims of state oppression or their own families”.
For those who dare to speak out, danger remains.
Saudi prosecutors recently charged women’s rights activist Manahel Al-Otaibi with a “propaganda campaign”, citing social media posts challenging guardianship laws and saying she continued to forcefully wear the abaya.
Otaibi, who was referred to a specialized criminal court for terrorism cases, last year sentenced University of Leeds doctoral student Salma Shehab to 34 years in prison for tweeting criticism of the government.
Activists believe the Saudi authorities are primarily concerned with improving their own image, which is why the criticism has angered them, Seqali said.
“Unfortunately, arresting those who speak out does not entirely improve their image.”