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Saudi women can now drive, join the military, and fight sexual harassment. What's next?

In Saudi Arabia, the ruling powers that be have steadily been offering what can be described as advances for women in the Muslim country since 2017. One of the first such moves was a royal decree allowing women to drive, which came in September. Following that was the passage of a law that was the first of its kind — to address sexual harassment by mandating that anyone found guilty of the crime be flogged or imprisoned.

And now, just this week, the Saudi government has declared it will allow women to serve in the military.

Women will be limited to domestic security functions and banned from combat roles, but the move indeed appears to be a game changer in a country that has embraced the ultraconservative Wahhabism strain of Islam for well over 150 years. In order to qualify for service, women must meet a dozen different requirements, not the least of which is having a male guardian — a staple of Saudi society that requires women have guardians who oversee their access to employment, travel, health care, and freedom of movement within the male-dominated society.

It’s why, even with the series of legal advances, there are many who remain doubtful of how far women’s rights can truly go.

Human rights organizations, in fact, point to the male guardianship system as proof that women in Saudi Arabia still face stringent discrimination and a lack of freedom. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch point out that the Saudi government continues to punish and jail human rights activists who criticize the government, particularly on behalf of religious minorities and women.

Now shedding further light on the challenges women face in Saudi society are many of the women themselves, thanks to a recent swell of brave tweeters calling out sexual harassment in the midst of holy pilgrimages.

Inspired in part by the #MeToo movement, and certainly emboldened by the handful of changes for women’s access to basic human rights, a surge of Saudis speaking up about groping and assault in the holy city of Mecca is rallying around its own social media hashtag: #MosqueMeToo, created by feminist writer Mona Eltahawy, and as detailed in recent reports, including one on NPR.


The hashtag movement underlines how tricky it can be for women both to stand up for one’s rights and to be a part of a demonized religion and culture. Not only is speaking up taboo, but the notion of speaking out about sexual harassment is doubly so, an issue partially addressed by the new law from December. The women speaking out about their #MeToo moments in the pilgrimage to Mecca have also expressed concern that their efforts could backfire, both with reactions of Islamophobia and from conservative clerics and their followers who already chafe at the mingling of the sexes in the public space.

“The danger is that people could use this to try to separate men from women, which could be a disaster,” activist Daisy Khan told NPR. “We have enjoyed [praying] in the same space together for [more than 1,400 years].”

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