When Amirah al-Turkistani, a Saudi national, studied in Boston for a while, she often rode a bike. She became so attached to it that she decided to take it with her when she relocated back to Jeddah in 2015. It seemed like a silly idea, because at the time, Saudi women weren’t allowed to ride bikes. Friends laughed at al-Turkistani’s pointless-seeming initiative.
Life for women in Saudi Arabia is changing quickly. They are now experiencing new freedoms, such as riding a bicycle. The government announced the new policy earlier this month.
Amirah often rides her same green bicycle along Jeddah’s seaside paths. Sometimes she rides by herself, other times with her husband and children.
Lycra and other form-fitting sports textiles are still unthinkable.
The new policy says that women must still be covered in an abaya when riding a bike. Abayas are loose-fitting, full-length robes. They are required public dress for Saudi women. But abayas are changing, too. In the past, women could only where traditional black abayas. Now, Amirah chooses from several colors of abayas. She designs them herself.
“Jeddah today isn’t the same as Jeddah five, six years ago,” she said. “The scrutiny on clothes (has eased), there are more places to go, working opportunities for women are the same as for men.”
In a kingdom-wide modernization effort, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32, has recently loosened the social reins. For the first time in 35 years, movie theaters are no longer banned (in fact, a new 620-seat AMC theater is opening tomorrow in Riyadh, with screenings of Black Panther).
It feels strange to laud a country for something so simple and so, ahem, pedestrian; the fact remains that Saudi Arabia is a full-blown theocracy, which makes it a hellhole for agnostics and for women who’ve had enough of its stultifying patriarchy now, who don’t want to wait another generation or two for their rights to slowly catch up to those of men.
I doubt that Saudi Arabia will ever become synonymous with personal liberty, but steps in that direction are as encouraging as they are overdue.
(Image via Shutterstock)