The 32-year-old crown prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman has been making waves in both national and international politics as he continues to stray away from the traditionally conservative nature of his home country.
Within the last year, he lifted a 35-year-old ban on movie theaters, even allowing for a screening of the blockbuster Black Panther. But he’s also made changes for women, including lifting the ban on driving and allowing women to own their own businesses without a male guardian’s supervision.
“We are all human beings and there is no difference,” bin Salman said when asked about gender equality during a 60 Minutes interview with CBS News.
The crown prince, who is often referred to as MBS, recently made a visit to the United States where he met with several powerful and influential figures like Oprah, President Donald Trump, and even Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders of Google.
The point of the nearly three-week trip was to improve relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States, as well as to discuss possible investment opportunities and technological growth. Women’s rights, however, were also a large part of the conversation, even if the topic wasn’t necessarily on the crown prince’s initial agenda.
During the trip, MBS did an interview with TIME in which he explained how previous Saudi laws were antiquated and didn’t actually embrace the spirit of Islam. He explained that the religion does actually include examples of women being treated as equals, and those instances are what inspired him to make a change in his country.
“If someone comes and says ‘women cannot participate in sport,’ we tell them about how the Prophet raced with his wife,” the crown prince said. “If someone comes and says ‘women cannot do business,’ the wife of the Prophet, she is a businesswoman and he used to work for her.”
Women’s rights also came up when MBS met privately with Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles. In the meeting, Garcetti put a lot of emphasis on human rights issues in Saudi Arabia, according to a public statement he later released, which provided a look into the conversation between the two men. According to the statement, Mayor Garcetti “urged the Crown Prince to continue his efforts to advance women’s rights, and raised concerns about human rights and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen.”
But MBS didn’t just get encouragement. There were also many Americans protesting his visit who accused him of hypocrisy and of worsening human rights issues, specifically in the case of Yemen, which Saudi Arabia has been bombing for years.
“It is absurd that the US is in bed with this ‘prince’ who mercilessly bombs Yemen, shakes down Saudi businessmen, captured the Lebanese prime minister, concocted a rift with Qatar and even kidnapped his own mother,” CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin said in a press release announcing that the organization would be protesting the crown prince’s visit in Washington, D.C. “The Saudi monarchy also jails and beheads dissidents, discriminates against the Shia minority, and forces women to live under a repressive male guardianship system. It is not a regime the United States should be arming and abetting.”
“This is a man who doesn’t allow the freedom of women or human rights in his country,” Jodie Evans, who organized a CODEPINK demonstration in Beverly Hills, said. “He’s bombing Yemen into a humanitarian crisis, and everybody thinks he’s charming. He’s not charming. That we’re normalizing violence in the time of #MeToo is tragic.”
The lack of freedom that both Benjamin and Evans referred to includes a multitude of offenses. Currently, Saudi women are forbidden from getting married or divorced without permission from a male guardian, intermingling at their own will with men, leaving the house when not wearing a full-body covering called an abaya (though this may be on the verge of changing), receiving a fair hearing in court, and maintaining custody of their children after a divorce. And that’s only the beginning of the list.
With such a long list of things Saudi Arabian women cannot do, it’s clear that MBS and the rest of the nation still have a lot of work to do. While the changes made in the last three years indicate some change of mindset, only time will tell what the government will to do to further liberate women and how the country’s population will react to such drastic progress.
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