|A Saudi Arabian woman drives a car as part of a campaign to defy the ban on women driving. Photograph: AP
I don't believe gender differences are so strongly felt anywhere in the world as in Saudi Arabia. Even strolling down the street, the great majority of men are in white ankle-length shirt dresses while women are, by law, required to wear a black abaya and head scarf wherever they go in public. And gender differences in rights and obligations are just as black and white as the dress code. Women are banned from driving their own cars; they are not allowed to run their own businesses; they are not allowed inside main government buildings; and they cannot travel abroad, no matter what their age, without official permission from their guardians, which has to be authorised by the government.
As bleak as it may seem, since last year's International Women's Day there have been numerous breakthroughs. The women's driving campaign gained international recognition and the women involved were not as severely punished, as those who drove in the 1990 campaign. Then, 47 women were suspended from their jobs for two years, some had their homes ransacked. This year, Manal al-Sharif served 10 days in prison and Shaima Jastaniah was sentenced to 10 lashes across the back. The only woman to lose her job for driving was Madeeha al-Ajroush, who, ironically, worked for a charity whose mission is women's empowerment. The rest of the women got off with pledges and warnings. Quite a few respected religious scholars, such as Shiekh Eissa al-Ghaith, also came out in support of lifting the ban.
In September there was more good news with a royal decree that women would be included in the all-appointed advisory council (shura) and allowed full participation in municipal elections, whereas before they weren't even allowed to vote. Many major universities across the kingdom also opened colleges or announced plans for colleges in fields that were previously largely unavailable to women, such as law and engineering.
Before 2011, all lingerie shops were manned by men and customers had to discuss their knicker and bra sizes with these men. Fortunately, as a result of several campaigns both by officials such as the past labour minister Ghazi Algosaibi and activists such as Reem Asaad, the biggest implemented change this year is that women are now allowed to work in malls as sales clerks in lingerie shops. It might seem minor, but this opens the door to hundreds of thousands of women to work in an open, non-segregated environment. It could very much have the same impact as western women joining the workforce when men went out to fight in the second world war.
by Eman Al Nafjan