Saudi Arabia expands role of women in the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina

Role of women in the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina was increased as they were given positions across various departments, including administrative and technical

Saudi appoint women

Saudi Arabia has appointed 10 women in senior roles at Islam’s two holiest sites, authorities said Sunday, as the conservative petro-state seeks to boost female employment.

The appointment of women in senior positions at religious institutions is rare in the Islamic kingdom, which is in the midst of a wide-ranging liberalisation drive spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Saudis to expand role of women in Mecca and Medina

The women were appointed in the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina across various departments, including administrative and technical, according to a statement released by the general presidency for the affairs of the two holy mosques.

The recruitment drive was aimed at “empowering Saudi women with high qualifications and capabilities”, the statement said.

The two holy mosques previously recruited 41 women in leadership positions in 2018, according to Saudi media.

Read more: Reforms sweep across Saudi Arabia: More & more women are entering the workforce

Prince Mohammed has sought to boost employment for women as part of his “Vision 2030” plan, which is aimed at diversifying the kingdom’s economy and ending its addiction to oil.

Changes come as part of Prince Salman’s bid to ‘modernise’ Saudi Arabia

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman extended a passel of new rights to women: the right to travel without a male relative’s permission, to receive equal treatment in the workplace and to obtain family documents from the government. Together, they were a significant blow against a system that has long treated women as second-class citizens.

“This change means women are in a way in full control of their legal destiny,” Muna Abu Sulayman, a well-known Saudi media personality, wrote on Twitter. She said she was so elated that she could not sleep. Saudi appointing women in such positions, which are considered prestigious, is a testimony to the perhaps changing demeanour of the kingdom.

The new regulations were the most significant weakening yet of Saudi Arabia’s so-called guardianship system, a longstanding tangle of laws, regulations and social customs that subjected many women’s rights to the whims of their male relatives. Coming after new regulations allowing women to drive and attend

The number of working women in Saudi Arabia reached 1.03 million in the third quarter of 2019, 35 percent of the total workforce, compared to 816,000 in 2015, according to official figures.

Read more: Vision 2030: Kingdom Opens Military Services for Saudi Women

In other reforms, women in the kingdom are now allowed to drive cars, cinemas have reopened and genders are permitted to mix at events, including concerts, and in public places.

Complete freedom still lacking for women

The advances for women are a key piece of Prince Mohammed’s vision for reforming the kingdom by diversifying the economy and loosening social restrictions. Since his father ascended the throne in 2015, Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler, has won plaudits for taming the kingdom’s religious police, allowing movie theatres and music concerts, and lifting the ban on women driving.

Even as Prince Mohammed opened new doors for Saudi women, critics pointed out, some women who had campaigned for those rights remained in jail or on trial for their activism.

At least some of the changes to the guardianship laws are to take effect by the end of the month, the government said in a statement. But they will likely take longer to flow through the Saudi bureaucracy to individual households, and some women said they would only be truly equal once they received other rights they still lack, such as the ability to marry or live on their own without a male relative’s permission.

Even so, the changes were pivotal.

“These new regulations are history in the making,” Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, the kingdom’s ambassador to the United States and Saudi Arabia’s first female ambassador, wrote on Twitter. “They call for the equal engagement of women and men in our society.”

She added: “Our leadership has proved its unequivocal commitment to gender equality.”

In recent years, Prince Mohammed has loosened restrictions on women’s dress and pushed for more women to enter the workforce, billing the social opening as essential to build the insular Islamic kingdom’s economy. Saudi appointing women in key positions is the state trying to change the image the world has of the kingdom.

It was not clear why the new regulations were announced now, but the news was likely to draw some attention from the mounting foreign criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

But along with that social opening have come riskier moves that have raised questions about his brash leadership style, including his catastrophic war in Yemen, the jailing of dissidents at home, and the effort to silence them abroad, including the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

But the reforms have also been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent.

Saudi Arabia has detained and put on trial a dozen women activists who long campaigned for the right to drive, sparking widespread condemnation.

Read more: Saudi women & Vision 2030: A test of Prince Salman’s reforms

Some of the activists allege they were tortured and sexually harassed by interrogators.

AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk

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