In 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was asked in an interview with US news network CBS if women were equal to men. His answer was unambiguous, and rightly so: “Absolutely.”
He was asked this question because Saudi Arabia had long courted controversy regarding the public role of women in its society. Since the interview, he has put pen to paper. A series of major domestic reforms to strengthen women’s rights have been unveiled in the four years since, a key part of a wider programme to open up Saudi society. In 2018, the ban on Saudi women driving was lifted. This week, women were allowed to become taxi drivers.
Reforms appear to be working across a number of metrics. A crucial one is the employment rate of women, which rose from 66 per cent in 2016 to 75 per cent in 2020.
These measures are significant, but their implementation is even more so in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the consequences of which the world will live with for years to come.
As with any crisis, the pandemic has hit certain groups in society harder than others. The largest group to be affected disproportionately is women. McKinsey, a global consultancy firm, estimates that, worldwide, their jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the pandemic than men’s, largely because women are taking on an unequal share of unpaid care, whether it be of children out of education or sick relatives.
It is even a grave threat to their safety. UN Women lists cramped conditions, isolation with abusers and empty streets, all a result of the pandemic, as factors that have exacerbated gender-based violence in the past two years.
The Middle East is no different. Indeed, it is perhaps worse, given the already-disadvantaged position of women in some of its countries. Forty per cent experience some form of violence during their lifetime, according to UN Women, which also suggests that the real rates might be significantly higher.
In a country as large as Saudi Arabia, reform in favour of women’s rights will make a big difference. Last January, it amended anti-harassment laws to include provisions for publishing the names of the offenders. This week, a court did just that, ruling to name and shame a man convicted of verbally abusing a woman. The man, Yasser Mussalam Al Arwe, will serve eight months in prison. His conviction and sentencing will illustrate to women that their concerns are being heard, while also showing men that the government is serious about clamping down on such behaviour.
These measures, from allowing taxi driving to enforcing anti-harassment laws, have been implemented in a matter of days since the beginning of the New Year by the government of Saudi Arabia. Its society is progressing towards both more opportunities for women but, also changes to its economy that can benefit all members of society.