Baby Steps Toward Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia

Women are now allowed to ride bikes in Saudi Arabia —with a few tiny restrictions. They’re only allowed to bike if they are:  in a restricted area, with a man, have covered their bodies completely under the rules of Islamic abaya, biking strictly for entertainment (not transportation) and staying away from places where groups of young men are gathered in order to “avoid harassment.”

But at least it’s a small step forward. After all, women still can’t drive in Saudi Arabia. There’s actually no law that specifically bans them from doing so, but drivers in the country need a license to operate a car, and women aren’t issued driver’s licenses. But hey, now they get to pedal in circles at a park!

In another recent move forward for women in Saudi Arabia—a place where clerics warn against females participating in sports so they don’t “lose their virginity” by tearing their hymens—they’re slowly gaining the right to play sports. On Saturday, local paper al-Watan Daily reported that women’s sports clubs are now being licensed. Before this point, women could only use exercise facilities if the Health Ministry designated them as “health centers.” This news comes after last summer’s Olympics, in which Saudi women participated for the first time.

Saudi Arabia is also getting ready for women to vote and run in municipal elections in 2015, as promised by the king.

Many women’s rights activists in the the country now feel their voices are finally being heard. After King Abdullah made the elections announcement, Hatoon al-Fassi, a women’s rights activist and university professor said,

We’re so excited. We believe it’s the response to our demands, the first step in our long struggle to get our rights.

And there’s more! Abdullah also said,

Because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with sharia, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior clerics … to involve women in the Shura Council as members.

As of now, 30 women have been sworn into the Shura Council (a formal advisory body that can propose laws to the king, but can’t pass laws), seen as a major stride in women’s rights. As for the future, activists are taking it one step at a time. Maybe one day soon they’ll be given permission to drive a car to run errands independently.

Sign here to urge the Saudi embassy and the United Nations to support drivers’ licenses for Saudi women.

Photo of Saudi woman in a traditional abaya by flickr user Nouf AL Kinani under Creative Commons 2.0


Ponta Abadi, a graduate of the University of Oregon, is a former Ms. intern. Follow her on Twitter.