A Saudi woman who went out without wearing a veil late last month was arrested after authorities uncovered a photo of her posted to social media, sparking outrage from women's rights activists.
The woman went to a popular cafe for breakfast, posing for a photo outside of the restaurant without a hijab, a headscarf, or abaya, a loose-fitting piece of clothing that women are required to wear to cover their bodies from head to toe. She later posted it to Twitter, where it was widely circulated, both in Saudi Arabia and around the world.
The bold move sparked both backlash and praise, with some dubbing her the “Saudi Rosa Parks” and others calling for her execution, saying she violated the country’s moral code.
Authorities confirmed that they arrested a woman in her 20s for the alleged violation, but did not release her name. Various websites have identified her as Malak al-Shehri, according to the Agence France-Presse.
"Riyadh police stress that the action of this woman violates the laws applied in this country," police spokesman Fawaz al-Maiman said. He urged other members of the public to "adhere to the teachings of Islam.”
Women’s rights in Saudi Arabia have become a universally debated topic, with many decrying the system that curtails women’s ability to advance in society and make decisions without the influence of men. While women were granted the right to vote in last year’s municipal elections, laws still bar them from driving and require that they obtain permission from either their husbands or male relatives in order to obtain a passport, travel, or marry.
But women, and a younger generation of leaders, are beginning to push back on these customs, which they see as archaic and disadvantageous to half of the population.
“This long overdue move is welcome but it’s only a tiny fraction of what needs to be addressed over gender inequality in Saudi Arabia," Amnesty International UK's Karen Middleton told The Independent last year when women were permitted to register to vote.
So women like Ms. Shehri are taking matters into their own hands, protesting the nation’s restrictive laws and drawing international attention to them.
And some men in power are also taking notice of what they say are the ill effects of such limitations on Saudi society. Last month, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal released a four-page letter on his website calling for an end to the women’s driving ban.
“Such a ban on driving is fundamentally an infringement on a woman’s rights,” he wrote. “Preventing a woman from driving a car is today an issue of rights similar to the one that forbade her from receiving an education or having an independent identity. They are all unjust acts by a traditional society, far more restrictive than what is lawfully allowed by the precepts of religion.”
Saudi Arabia is the only nation in the world to enact such a ban, which disproportionately affects lower-income women who cannot afford to hire male drivers and have difficulty commuting to work.
Women are also standing up against the male guardianship system, and which requires them to receive permission from men to make decisions regarding their movement and life choices. In September, 14,000 women signed a petition calling for the government to abolish the system.
It’s unclear what success these new movements might have on the kingdom’s culture, but with photos of Shehri being shared across social media thousands of times, it’s clear her stunt is gaining attention.