A Saudi newspaper reportedly said that the conservative religious country will now allow women to ride a bicycle in public. Well, sort of, the AP reports:
The Al-Yawm daily cited an unnamed official from the powerful religious police as saying women will be allowed to ride bikes in parks and recreational areas, but they must accompanied by a male relative and dressed in the full Islamic head-to-toe abaya. [...]
The official told the paper that Saudi women may not use the bikes for transportation, but “only for entertainment,” and that they should shun places where young men gather “to avoid harassment.”
So Saudi women can now ride bikes (progress?), but they can’t do it unaccompanied, must be completely covered and can’t use a bicycle for transportation purposes (baby steps). Women are also not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, despite a series of recent local protest movements seeking to overturn the ban.
There have been other small steps forward for women’s rights in this deeply conservative and repressive culture. The Kingdom sent a woman to the summer olympics for the first time last year and in 2011, the Saudi King granted women the right to vote and run in municipal elections starting in 2015. King Abdullah also recently appointed 30 women to the previously all-male Shura Council, a formal advisory committee in Saudi Arabia. And another Saudi newspaper reported last week that authorities will license women’s sports clubs for the first time.
But Saudi Arabia is still by no means a haven for political and human rights. Last year, Princess Basma Bint Saud Bin Abdul Aziz, a Saudi royal living in London, risked severe backlash by calling for reform, particularly of the religious police. “It is such a non-tolerant atmosphere,” she said. “Our religious police has the most dangerous effect on society – the segregation of genders, putting the wrong ideas in the heads of men and women, producing psychological diseases that never existed in our country before, like fanaticism.”
But in a new piece looking at expanding rights for women in Saudi Arabia, Time Magazine Middle East Bureau Chief Aryn Baker observes that, “From the outside, progress on women’s rights in the kingdom may appear to be mired in tar,” but, she adds, “from the perspective of women inside the country, dizzying changes are afoot.”