The right to ride a bike may not strike many women as the most fundamental of liberties, but women in Saudi Arabia were pleasantly surprised this week by an announcement that a ban on women cyclists has been lifted.
The news was initially dismissed as an April Fool’s joke, but Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice has reportedly confirmed that women will now be able to use bicycles and motorbikes around the Arab kingdom.
According to Al-Yaum, a Saudi Arabian daily newspaper, the law stipulates that women must be accompanied by a male relative and wear a full-length abaya. The ban lift applies to parks and recreational areas, but cycling is not yet permitted as a form of transport for women. Areas where rallies and protests are held must be steered clear of in order to avoid any unwanted accidents or incidents.
This development is indeed a small step, but it is progress in the right direction. Although Saudi Arabia remains the only country in which women do not have the freedom to drive, women’s rights are slowly improving. King Abdullah took the unprecedented step of appointing 30 women as members of Saudi Arabia’s formal advisory body, the Shura Council, earlier this year, bringing female representation to 20%. The King also announced plans to allow women to vote in municipal elections from 2015.
Sceptics have rejected recent progress as cosmetic. Human Rights Watch has condemned the country’s strict guardianship system for treating women as “minors”, while Amnesty International has reported that claims of domestic violence against women in the kingdom are “rife”. The World Economic Forum’s 2009 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 130th out of 134 countries for gender equality.
Clearly, there is still room for improvement, but it is evident that the Saudi government is paying attention to international pressure. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Human Rights and Democracy Report categorizes Saudi Arabia as a “country of concern” for its human rights record. While noting its concerns over issues such as freedom of expression, the Foreign Office acknowledged an increase of Saudi women’s integration into the work force.
The Foreign Office’s latest update to the publication reported new labour laws abolishing the requirement for women to acquire consent from their fathers or guardians to be employed. It also praised successful campaigns calling for the Ministry of Commerce to remove rules stating that women must have legal representation in order to conduct business.