Middle East

Saudi women's small steps on path to progress

Women at a cafe in Jeddah (file photo) Image copyright AP
Image caption Women's rights in Saudi Arabia are among the most restricted in the world

Women have made strides in Saudi Arabia during the last 10 years, in employment, at universities, and even in politics. But they still cannot drive, and continue to face severe social restrictions, as Barbara Plett Usher in Riyadh finds.

Safe behind the gates of a large beautiful villa, women take off their black robes and don the latest in trendy exercise outfits.

They have to be discreet. Women's fitness programmes are relatively new in Saudi Arabia and they do not want to attract censor from religious authorities who promote the state's austere version of Islam.

"Girls have not had any exposure to any type of movement at a young age so whenever they come into the gym it's like… teaching a baby how to walk," says the instructor, a European expatriate.

Like most of those interviewed she did not want to be identified because of a potential backlash from religious conservatives.

The health club starts off new members slowly, but it also pushes the boundaries by offering extreme fitness training known as Crossfit - a combination of weight-lifting, gymnastics and cardio workout.

To a soundtrack of girl-power music the women lift barbells and jump onto 18-inch boxes, cheering each other on.

Limited gains

There has been movement in this field, despite the sensitivity.

Last year a Royal Decree made physical education for schoolgirls mandatory for the first time. And a number of organisations have submitted proposals to the government suggesting criteria for licensing female fitness centres.

If approved such a move would join other advances for women in the past 10 years, promoted by the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.

More and more are getting jobs; they outnumber men at universities; and they have made inroads into politics - 30 women now sit on a government advisory board called the Shura Council.

But there is a long way to go yet in their struggle to gain equality with men in law and practice.

Campaign setback

In an upscale restaurant, a group of young professional men and women network over coffee and fizzy fruit drinks, quietly defying the kingdom's strict gender segregation.

"It's sort of like meeting up in a bar in a normal country, just without the alcohol," observed one woman.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Women are banned from driving in Saudi Arabia, although some have showed defiance

But none of the female lawyers and investment bankers present could drive themselves home. Saudi Arabia is still the only country in the world where women are prohibited from getting behind the wheel.

A campaign against the ban petered out because of a government crackdown and lack of public support. And two women who tried to protest were recently detained on terrorism charges.

They have since been released. The episode was another setback for the movement, although in a seeming paradox there have also been reports that the Shura Council has recommended relaxing restrictions on women driving.

A marketing analyst was cautious about the prospect, even though she drives when outside Saudi Arabia.

"I don't know if it would be safe, I don't know if I would drive," she said. "I think just the closed-mindedness of the majority of the people, it's so embedded in their culture: it would be a bit of a shock treatment [for them]."

As if to underline the perils of defying social mores, word spread that the religious police had arrived.

Immediately the men and women retreated to opposite sides of the restaurant. The police stayed at the door, but it was enough to break up the party.

Employment push

Like these young professionals, many women have taken advantage of the government push to get them into the workforce. Some have set up innovative private companies, but they are also being employed in factories, and replacing men as store clerks.

Hiba al-Zamil is the fundraising chief of Al-Nahda, a foundation that offers social services and employment training for women. Most are poor single mothers who do not have a man to help them get around.

For Ms al-Zamil, women driving is an economic issue.

"Most of our projects are inflated because of transportation," she says. "We pay a lot for these women so they can come and go and we know the way they are suffering in finding safe transportation. From my point of view public transportation is more important than women driving."

Public transport is on its way, with a massive metro system under construction in Riyadh.

Women are waiting to see if progress in other areas will continue under the new monarch, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, who is seen as closer to the religious establishment than his predecessor. He has sent mixed messages so far.

Publicly women declare that he cannot reverse the gains they have made. Privately some express unease. But all agree that even if changes continue, they will happen very slowly.

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