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ABC News

Saudi Arabia is making historic strides in women’s rights, so why haven’t we heard about it?

When Saudi IT consultant Fatimah Almathami arrived to study in Brisbane, people often asked her if Saudi Arabia was safe for women.

Ironically, what Ms Almathami missed the most about her home country was how safe she felt going out late at night for coffee or a meal with her friends.

"I actually don't blame them," she said, referring to her friends in Australia who had only ever read negative things about Saudi Arabia.

Few Australians seemed aware of the rapid transformation that has been taking place since 2019 in the Islamic Kingdom, which was formerly home to some of the most strict gender-based laws in the world.

As protests for women’s rights rage across Iran and much of the region is enveloped in post-revolution chaos, neighbouring Saudi Arabia has been quietly reforming repressive laws and pushing forward mass development plans as the country opens up to tourism.

In recent years, strict dress regulations, mandatory gender segregation and a ban on women drivers were abolished.

A guardianship system, which forbade women from travelling or even leaving the house without a male family member, was amended.

On a recent visit to Saudi Arabia, women made up a large percentage of the work force as border agents, tour guides, in hospitality and fields that would have seemed unimaginable a few years ago.

Where concerts and cinemas were once banned, Justin Bieber, Blackpink and Bruno Mars were headlining, while men and women mingled freely in public places.

It's all part of Vision 2030, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's plan to build a modern economy less dependent on oil.

But at the same time, Saudi Arabia has also imprisoned activists and carried out hundreds of state executions, while migrant workers routinely report abuse and exploitation.

As some laud Saudi's rapid advancements, others say they are just a front to attract international investment and tourism.

Even the crown prince, the man behind the push for modernisation, is suspected of involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the round-up of other political opponents.

Human Rights Watch researcher Joey Shea told the ABC while there have been some reforms under the leadership of the crown prince, "Saudi Arabia has experienced one of the worst periods of repression in the country’s modern history".

Regardless, changes are happening and fast, especially for young Saudi women like Fatimah Almathami.

'A blast for all of us'

Ms Almathami spent almost 14 years living in Australia as she studied her bachelor's, master's and PhD degrees at the University of Queensland.

Each year, when she returned for holidays, she would see transformations.

"The changes made by King Salman and the crown prince especially, were a blast for all of us. Everything happened so fast," she said.

She returned to Saudi in July and currently lives in the capital Riyadh, helping other young Saudi women break into IT, where she said women now outnumber men studying in this field.

Before the reforms, Ms Almathami said gender segregation meant women could only work in segregated education facilities or medicine.

"Women in the medical field struggled a lot from the society, because they were seen as immoral for women to work in mixed-gender workplaces," she said.

"That's back then, but now, almost every workplace is gender diverse. So it's really good.

"It's not just about women's inclusion, but about having diverse thinking and ideas in all fields. So women's inclusion actually changed a lot of things in my country, in politics, tourism, sport and every field."

Opening Saudi's first women's dojo

For university pathology professor and martial arts expert Sara Mokhtar, Saudi's reforms have brought "dramatic changes", particularly in terms of sport.

When she first discovered karate, women were not allowed in gyms, so she took private lessons with a Filippino nurse she met during her medical training, and later began coaching other women in private as well.

In 2008, she moved to Melbourne to study her master's and PhD in pathology at Monash University.

There, she discovered new forms of martial arts, earning two black belts.

After she returned to Jeddah in 2016, her dream to open a dojo was not only thwarted by strict laws, but social attitudes as well.

"I actually had to convince people — and to convince women especially — that martial arts, does nothing to your femininity," Ms Mokhtar said.

"It creates self-confidence … it's good for your physical abilities, good for your mental health and spiritual behaviour as well."

But as the government changed policy on women's participation in sport, Ms Mokhtar went from two students to hundreds, launching Saudi's first martial arts gym for women and children in 2021.

Last year, she organised the first women's tournament in Saudi, inviting international competitors.

Where she once trained in secret, she now receives support from the Ministry of Sport as an athlete, a trainer and an international judge.

"At the moment, I get more support as an athlete than as an assistant professor at the university," she said.

But sports is not the only area where her life has changed.

Ms Mokhtar, who is now vice-dean of the Faculty of Applied Medical Sciences at King Abdul Aziz University, was among hundreds of women that got behind the wheel the very day a ban on female drivers was lifted.

"All the policemen on the streets were giving us flowers and congratulating us."

And, while years ago, morality police patrolled the streets of Saudi, enforcing strict dress codes, she said: "Now you have the choice. It's totally up to you."

"The changes are really empowering woman, but it will take more time to get more women in leadership positions and for people to adapt."

Changes also bring relief to men

The changes have also been welcomed by many men, who were also affected by gender segregation and put under pressure by guardianship laws.

Ms Almathami said after her father passed away, her brother had to take responsibility for the rest of the family — an immense pressure for a young man who suddenly had to do everything for each member of the family, including all paperwork, applications, escorting them when they left the house and driving them around.

Previously, for any documentation, the process was long and difficult, requiring a male relative to sign and approve each step, Ms Almathami said.

"But now I just renewed my own passport online and it arrived by mail in three days," she said, adding that she also has her own car now and can drive herself, travel and work "without bothering my brother".

"Men have freedom from these burdens and women can thrive and do things for themselves.

"It makes life easier for me and even for my brothers."

Construction manager Ali Khan said: "The new reforms have changed life completely here."

"Before it was against the law for me to be sitting here with you speaking like this, or to drive together in the same car," he said, sitting at a cafe in Jeddah.

However, he said that his own wife still follows the same dress and social customs as before.

In the streets nearby, while a few women walked freely in modest Western-style clothing, most still covered their faces.

Ms Almathami said for many families, it would take time to adjust.

"We actually face lots of social unacceptance. It's hard after three to four decades under — I wouldn't say conservatives, it's more than that — extremists. So it's hard to change people's mindset quickly," she said.

"So it's taking a while, but it's working."

Crackdown on activists continues, despite reforms

Reina Wehbi, MENA regional campaigner for Amnesty International, said while Saudi Arabia is "rebranding its image" as a progressive state, the underlying reality is very different.

"'Positive' changes have mostly been social reforms and are very far from genuine human rights reforms in Saudi Arabia," she said.

"They are meant to deflect attention from the continued brutal crackdown on activists and human rights defenders and other flagrant human rights violations."

She said most human rights defenders, independent journalists, writers and activists have been arbitrarily detained.

In 2019, just as the kingdom announced that women could drive, the women who had campaigned tirelessly and publicly for precisely this right were arrested and locked away.

More recently, Salma al-Shehab, a PhD student and activist who posted support for women's rights activists on Twitter, was sentenced in August to 34 years in prison.

While reforms to the male guardianship system have had a positive impact, Ms Wehbi said the current laws still entrench "a system of gender-based discrimination in most aspects of family life, including in marriage, divorce, and child custody".

These laws also fail to protect women from domestic violence and sexual abuse in marriage.

Atheism is illegal and is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, while same-sex relationships are prohibited, she added.

Ms Wehbi urged Saudi authorities to release all human rights defenders incarcerated for peaceful expression and "enact and implement laws protecting women from violence".

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