As a lover of football myself, recent footage of Saudi women experiencing a live game for the first time in history, warmed me right through.
Captured by Sky News, a sea of blue and white fills the Riyadh stadium as the camera pans to a group of women, wildly waving flags and cheering loudly. They are in their element.
Sitting in the stands is secondary school teacher, Nora. Her love of the game is patent, but this social reform holds even greater worth than being able to attend games freely.
“It means that I am human”, she tells the interviewer. “No other one prevents me from doing what I want. No other one decides what I want. I am the one who decides,’ she says emphatically.
Nora’s bold words reflect a growing resolve in Saudi Arabia for gender equality. And, it’s easy to believe that the current government takes that seriously.
Indeed, allowing women to enjoy live sports, is just one of many reforms currently promised by the Saudi Government. In September last year, the country made history by lifting a controversial ban on female drivers which will take effect in June. Till then, it remained the only country in the world to hold such a policy. Similarly, following a 35-year ban, women last year were welcomed into public cinemas.
And, perhaps most encouragingly, Saudi women are now being urged to pursue careers. In a bid to reduce the country’s reliance on oil, current Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (who is just 32), called for greater workforce participation and contributions to the economy. Just yesterday in fact, Saudi Public Prosecutions announced they’d opened up applications for women to become investigators.
But can these new changes be explained as just a simple change of heart?
That’s not what a number of Saudi female activists believe, accusing the Prince of ingenuity, and claiming new reforms are just hollow publicity attempts to appeal to western governments. Hala Aldosari, a prominent female academic in the US explained this further in an interview with Al Jazeera.
“The government is trying to portray itself as reformist by tackling certain things that are visible to their outside patrons,” she said. “They need international businesses to recognise the leadership of Saudi Arabia as a reformer in order to show that they are not discriminating against women and are reforming their competitiveness.
“But they are trying to pick and choose those kinds of reforms that they know will make a high impact on the international media and their allies, while at the same time silencing anyone within Saudi Arabia for demanding those reforms.”
And indeed, despite these changes, Saudi women remain far from equal.
Their husbands are still determined by their father or the state, they cannot open their own bank accounts and they have no right to a fair trial. They cannot freely travel, dress how they please, seek autonomous medical advice, hold custody of their children or interact with men outside of their families.
Seeing Saudi women enjoying a football game was heartwarming. But there is still a long way to go. And Nora’s words, no matter how poignant, were a far cry from the truth.