Amid a Saudi Purge, Women Face the Test of a Lifetime

As the kingdom experiences momentous change, women are keenly aware that the weight of history is on their shoulders.

On a recent Sunday evening, Amal al-Hazzani’s friends gathered at an all-female hotel in Riyadh to celebrate the king’s decision to allow women to drive. Nearly a month had passed since the announcement, and this was not their first celebration — “maybe number 15,” she said.

Hazzani, a biochemistry professor at King Saud University, sees this sort of ongoing jubilation daily. Colleagues still bring cakes to her all-female office to congratulate one another. One of her female students recently came to class wearing a shirt that read simply: “I will drive.”

“We still live in the feeling — it is still hot,” Hazzani said. “I think this is the beginning — not the end, not the middle — but the beginning of more rights for women.”

In the past few months, Saudi Arabia has witnessed social, political, and economic upheaval at a speed unmatched in the modern era.

In addition to backing reforms that allow women to access government services without a guardian’s permission and even enter sports arenas, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has also launched a new sovereign wealth fund, reshaped the government hierarchy, and proposed multi-billion-dollar megaprojects.

To pave the way for those changes, the crown prince has undertaken a series of sweeping crackdowns within the kingdom. The first roundup was aimed at ideological foes of reform, including conservatives and clerics active on social media and vocally opposed to women’s rights, as well as public figures who critiqued his economic reform plans and foreign policy. In a second crackdown last weekend, Mohammed bin Salman’s newly launched anti-corruption body arrested ministers, princes, and businessmen, clearing the way politically for the whole-of-government shake-up his plans require. Those arrested have been charged with crimes such as embezzlement and fraud, for hiring ghost employees or favoring personal business ties in government contracts, for example.

While the moves are paving a path for a broad spectrum of reforms, so far, women have seen the most tangible benefits. Bestowed with so many rights so quickly — and at the cost of so much political and social capital — roughly a dozen Saudi women described a fragile moment in which they worry they must either deliver or watch their rights rolled back by social pressure.

“You prove yourself now or never,” said Sumayah Fatani, a consultant and former researcher at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. “It’s a big social responsibility.”

A slow-roll revolution

For much of the last half-century, women in Saudi Arabia were confined to the domestic sphere, unable to work except in a handful of professions. Women couldn’t drive or go out in public without a male guardian. The rules were enforced by the religious police but also the many families who taught their daughters a strict social code.

“Piety was the theme for the ’90s and the 2000s,” Fatani said. “It was something you take with you when you traveling, something you do when you’re marrying, something you talk about with your friends.”

Social change moved so slowly that it was at times difficult to say when it ended or began. The reforms that did take root, however, worked best when they were invisible. State-funded female education that began in the 1960s, for example, was never mandatory; Saudi authorities didn’t force families to send their daughters to class. But as female schools were built and expanded in the 1970s and 1980s, more and more families did. Female literacy rose from 2 percent in 1970 to 91 percent in 2015. All-women universities followed; in 2014, 57 percent of Saudi university graduates were female.

“When you read the vision, you see it is all about participation for women, more integration, more jobs for women,” said Amal al-Shaman, one of the first women appointed to the Shura Council. “Before you do all of these things, there are many steps that need to be taken.”

Driving was the most obvious obstacle to seeing women employed. “That’s the main problem for us,” Noura, a 26-year-old psychiatric health masters student, explained during a break from studying at a Riyadh cafe. “We have these barriers to go to our places, work or school, or wherever — even the hospital.”

Noura said that she will learn how to drive — but regulation, she argued, is only half the story. “I see [the biggest challenge] not in teaching women how to drive, but in improving our society and family [mindsets]. They need to accept to see a woman driving in the street.”

Top-down vs. bottom-up

The changing role of women in Saudi Arabia is now being driven by a top-down process, pitched by the government as a sort of gift bestowed upon the population. “The key of the change [is that it] comes from the upper level,” said Hazzani, who is also a columnist for Saudi paper Asharq Al-Awsat. “These are political decisions, and that’s what makes it strong.”

Some analysts believe the crackdowns, particularly against outspoken clerics, were meant in part to give social reforms the space to take root. By that explanation, the strategy dates to April 2016, when King Salman stripped the long-feared religious police of their ability to arrest. “This is a very big change, because it touched the most powerful men in Saudi Arabia,” Hazzani said. “It’s the first time in Saudi history that someone dared to touch this corner.”

Yet because the social reforms aren’t driven by a grassroots effort, the biggest burden of persuading society will fall to women themselves.

Economics will likely help win over some skeptics. Since more women started working half a decade ago, families have quickly realized the benefit — and at times necessity — of the two-income household. The marriage market has shifted from preferring a stay-at-home wife to almost mandating a wage-earning bride.

For the first time, Saudi ministries have started to actively promote the economic benefit of women’s employment, rather than dancing delicately around the social concerns. Increasing female workforce participation, the Saudi Labor and Social Development Ministry wrote in its latest market report, is “essential for a young and rapidly growing nation to achieve sustainable economic success.”

In almost all of the changes so far, however, policies have left open a back door through which conservatives can maintain the status quo. In June 2018, women will legally be able to drive, but the most conservative male guardians likely won’t take their daughters or wives to driver’s education classes. Companies may be ready to hire, but families may balk at seeing female relatives in a mixed-gender environment.

“When I’ve spoken to businesses as a consultant, one of the biggest barriers they’ve cited in hiring women is their families,” said one female Saudi management consultant who declined to be named due to client confidentiality. “The regulations are the first step in guaranteeing women’s rights and equality with men before the law, but then the social norms end up playing a really big role, and it doesn’t change when the regulations change.”

Compounding the challenge for the forthcoming generation of Saudi women is a support structure that is almost nonexistent.

Many workplaces don’t currently have the sort of flexible working arrangements that are now increasingly common in Europe and parts of the United States to accommodate parents.

“The society is not accepting of a woman abandoning her children and working, so there has to be this balance between her work and career and this flexibility in work, which is all policy design,” Fatani said.

Hands on the wheel

From now through June, when women are set to start driving, the kingdom is preparing both the policy and the society. One of Riyadh’s top women’s colleges, Princess Nourah University, last month inaugurated the first driving school for women. Female drivers will train at the campus, which sits along the dusty road from Riyadh’s airport into the city center. Some Saudi women already know how to drive from studying abroad or traveling; authorities will need to decide if and how their training is recognized.

Ride-hailing companies such as the Dubai-based Careem are already planning major recruiting drives to attract female drivers. Uber, meanwhile, is reported to have pushed heavily for the decision to allow women to drive, after the Saudi sovereign wealth fund made a $3.5 billion investment in the company.

Not all women, or perhaps even most, will drive right away. Some will wait to see how the reforms unfold. Others, like Hazzani, aim to be on the streets from the first day they’re allowed, proving to themselves as much as anyone that they’ve earned it.

Haya, a mother and a schoolteacher, explained what this would mean to her after decades of working while raising her now college-age daughter. Walking toward a taxi line in Riyadh, she cleared the air with her arms to signal the shift: “I don’t need to rely on anybody,” she said. “This is it. If I need to, I just go.”