RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Her mobile phone case said it all. It was not covered with sparkling rhinestones or cartoonish kitty cat faces. Just a photo of her beloved king reaching out and shaking her hand at a formal reception.
“He took it and held it, and asked me, ‘How are you?’” the middle-aged professional recalled fondly, imitating the late King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz’s slow-cadenced, masculine voice. “I love him.”
Now that Abdullah is gone, does she think that his successor, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, will show the same commitment to advancing women’s opportunities as Abdullah or might he slow things down?
“His brother opened the road and now he will close it? No, he can’t!” she declared.
But second thoughts soon crept in, and she said, “We know he is closer to the religious people than Abdullah was.”
She is not alone in her concerns about what is coming under Salman, who ascended to the throne Jan. 23. His early public overtures to the religious establishment, which espouses the ascetic version of Islam underpinning Saudi Arabia’s male-dominated society, have many women worried.
“We hope he will surprise us,” a female university professor said wryly.
Saudi Arabia is unique in the Muslim world in strictly enforcing a guardianship system under which every woman for her entire life must have a male legal guardian. His consent is necessary before a woman can attend university, get married, travel abroad, take certain jobs and have some types of surgery. A woman’s first guardian is her father, and when she marries, her husband. If widowed or divorced, a male relative must step in as guardian. Sometimes that assignment falls to her own son, which many females find insulting.
Saudi religious authorities say this system is required by Islam, but it is based more on tribal customs and culture than on Islamic precepts.
The new royal administration has not yet made clear its position on advancing women’s opportunities. On the one hand, one of Salman’s first moves after becoming king was to extend a royal olive branch to several clerics who had been demoted or ignored by Abdullah, sometimes for publicly objecting to his promotion of women’s advancement. And it is widely believed that Salman will give the Wahhabi clerical establishment more say in formulating policies than Abdullah did.
On the other hand, Salman has peppered his Cabinet with young technocrats who are aware that national development requires women’s participation in the economy and public life.
Women make up close to 60% of higher education enrollment and about a third of the estimated 140,000 Saudis studying overseas on government scholarships. And yet, female unemployment in the kingdom is 32.5%, according to recent government figures.
Salman also released two women — Loujain al-Hathloul, 25, and Maysaa al-Amoudi, 33 — who had been detained since December for participating in a demonstration against the ban on female drivers. Hathloul had driven from the United Arab Emirates up to the Saudi border and refused to leave her car until she was allowed to drive through. Amoudi showed up to give her support. The two were eventually arrested and put on trial for charges that are still not clear.
That was interrupted when the judge referred the case to a special court for terrorism cases, according to Hathloul’s lawyer, Ibrahim al-Modamigh. It was the first time that female drivers protesting the ban had been referred to the terrorism court — part of a wider crackdown against all dissent that has been going on in the kingdom for the past two years.
In a phone interview, Modamigh said he appealed the judge’s referral and has not yet heard the decision of the appeals court. The two women were released on bail, he added, and can still be called back to court for a continuation of their trial.
“The picture is still not clear,” he said. The women’s release “is a good sign but their trial will continue.”
Since their release Feb. 12, the two have declined interviews, which suggests that they were forced to sign papers promising not to talk publicly, a common practice in the kingdom.
Hathloul’s husband, the well-known Saudi comedian Fahad Albutairi, also declined to be interviewed when reached by phone.
The national campaign protesting the ban on female drivers that began in 2011 appears to be all but dead, victim of both an increasingly harsh government pushback and lack of support from the Saudi population. Female activists who once were happy to talk about the protest and put videos of themselves driving on YouTube are now reluctant to speak publicly.
The tough action against female drivers under the otherwise female-friendly reign of Abdullah stemmed from the religious right’s unassailable objection to allowing women to drive. So while Abdullah bucked the ultraconservatives on many other women issues, he did not budge on the driving ban.
He promoted women’s opportunities in higher education, the workplace and public life. For the first time, women were allowed to study law and engineering, got their own individual national identity cards and were appointed to the previously all-male Majlis al-Shura, an advisory body to the king. He also decreed that women could vote and run as candidates in the next election for municipal councils, though no firm date for those elections has been set.
Abdullah also supported a national campaign led by one of his daughters to address the problem of domestic violence, a first step in raising public consciousness about the issue. He also curbed the religious police’s aggressive behavior toward women in shopping malls, where they patrolled the halls enforcing the Saudi strict dress code for women, telling them to veil their faces.
Sometimes, it was little things that made women appreciate Abdullah, said a 31-year-old beauty salon owner. Before him, a woman had to bring two male witnesses to court to vouch for her identity. Now, judges must accept her identity card as sufficient. “It was a trust issue,” she said. “King Abdullah trusted women more.”
“I think King Abdullah was the best thing,” she added. “After him things are only going to stop or go backward. He left really big shoes to fill. Everybody loved him. He was so generous and he wasn’t all about himself.”
Abdullah’s stance on women led the ultraconservative religious establishment to accuse him of “Westernizing” Saudi society. “There were lots of people angry about him putting 30 women in the Shura; most were religious people,” said a young Saudi businessman.
Some Saudis say it is impossible for Salman to reverse the progress made for women under Abdullah because it has already changed Saudi society. “I think the train has left the station,” said a former aide to Abdullah.
Certainly no one expects that Salman will remove the female appointees to the Shura, stop women from getting university degrees or entering the workplace. But some women fear that the government will find an excuse not to let them vote in the next municipal councils, begin reducing the number of women who receive overseas scholarships and otherwise throw up bureaucratic roadblocks in front of their aspirations.
They also are worried about increased social constriction and stressful harassment from the religious police. One female doctor related how she recently received an email at work reminding her that she was not supposed to wear high heels, makeup or perfume on the job.
Although it was an old rule, it had never been strictly enforced. “This was the first time I got such an email,” the doctor said.
The author's recent trip to Saudi Arabia was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.