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From women taking the wheel to the arrival of cinemas, Saudi Arabia is changing

Saudi women create oil paintings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 16, 2018. Saudi women usually wear a black abaya and a hijab whenever they leave their homes. (Mainichi)

RIYADH, Saudia Arabia -- The women of this conservative Muslim kingdom in the Middle East will be granted the right to drive in June, but 28 years ago things were a lot different when a group of women took to the wheel here to protest suppression of their rights and suffered the consequences.

    On Nov. 6, 1990, 47 women including Madeha al Ajroush, a 64-year-old psychologist and photographer, took to the wheel of around a dozen regular passenger vehicles and drove around Riyadh for roughly 30 minutes. Their actions were a protest led by university professors, dentists, housewives and many other women who had received their driver's licenses while spending time abroad. At the time, the neighboring country of Iraq had invaded Kuwait and the region was wrapped up in the Gulf War. Seeing female U.S. soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia driving gave the women the push they needed to act.

    Madeha al Ajroush recalls her participation in a 1990 protest for women's right to drive, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 17, 2018. (Mainichi)

    "We all agreed the day that we will go and we would not be stopped. We could do it," al Ajroush said. "At that time, women had no voices -- absolutely no rights."

    However, the driving stunt attracted the wrath of the authorities, and al Ajroush was detained. As an additional punishment, photograph negatives she had amassed over 15 years were burned. While it is not specified by law, the conservative Muslim factions that had considerable weight in the government justified the ban on female drivers by arguing that if women were able to move freely outside the home, it would lead to chaos in male-female relations.

    Drastic changes swept the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in September 2017. As part of social reforms led by 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, it was announced that the prohibition on female drivers would be lifted.

    Al Ajroush is now eagerly looking forward to the day when she can finally sit in the driver's seat. "I've long waited. I was very, very happy. My dream came true," she said.

    Saudi Arabia depends on petroleum for 80 percent of its annual government revenue, and concerns have surfaced about the country's finances because if the price of crude oil falls, it could lead to serious fiscal woes. It is hoped that promoting the advancement of women in society will also lead to economic revitalization.

    Meanwhile, al Ajoush still keeps in contact with the 46 women who drove with her in protest. "We are friends (still). Everybody is all right," she said. "Most of us are in our 60s. At the time we were in our 20s and 30s. We all get together once a year, celebrating Nov. 6 ever year. And we had a big, big party in Riyadh after that news (the ban would be lifted)."

    Female film director Hana al Omair smiles speaking about the lift on the movie theater ban, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 16, 2018. (Mainichi)

    However, not everyone is happy about the reforms, and they include some foreign workers. Of Saudi Arabia's total population of some 32 million, foreign nationals account for one-third. For one 28-year-old Pakistani taxi driver, who is in his sixth year in Saudi Arabia, the financial situation is getting tough. Two years ago, his monthly income of 3,000 Saudi riyals (roughly 90,000 yen) plunged to 2,000 riyals due to the spread of ride-hailing services like Uber. On top of that, women will soon be granted the right to drive.

    "If women enter the taxi industry, they will take my business. Drivers who were hired to drive women around will also lose their jobs," he lamented. "Even though foreigners have been supporting the economy of this country, will they just throw us away in the end?"

    But the changes haven't stopped there. This April, a long-standing prohibition on movie theaters was lifted in order to diversify industry in the country.

    "Life has changed completely. A few years ago, a year ago, I would never have dreamed of that," said female film director Hana al Omair, 47. When she was studying abroad in England, she fell in love with Akira Kurosawa's works, such as "Seven Samurai," "To Live" and "Dreams." After returning to Saudi Arabia, she has filmed documentaries about musicians and other subjects. "When I used to talk about my passion for cinema, people would look at me as if I were crazy," she revealed.

    Her films could only be shown in foreign theaters or be fashioned for television broadcast domestically, but now, there is a possibility for them to be screened in Saudi Arabia. Just as Kurosawa weaved stories of the joy and sadness of the Japanese people, al Omair also wants to portray Saudi Arabia just as it is. Still, she has reservations. There is no way of knowing just how severe censorship by the authorities will be.

    "Right now is ... a new experiment and a new experience. I want to open doors (for the next generation of filmmakers)," she said, adding that she will be careful to avoid radical works so not to attract the anger of conservatives.

    When Saudi women leave their houses, it is the norm to cover themselves in a black, full-body over-garment called an abaya and wear a hijab scarf to cover their heads. However, in Riyadh, there are also women who walk around without a scarf covering their heads. In the past, these women would have become the targets of crackdowns by religious police, but a 21-year-old university student said that recently such strict measures have been relaxed.

    Under the rule of a new prince, Saudi Arabia is changing. However, as part of consolidating his power, he imprisoned many of his own family members in a purge last November. In a country where 60 percent of the population is in their 30s or younger, there is much support for the same-age ruler cracking down on an older generation of royalty. However, the country's foreign affairs have drawn criticism.

    Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman doubles as the kingdom's defense minister, and the military intervention into the Yemeni civil war in 2015 led by the prince has already claimed over 10,000 lives in the neighboring nation. When he made an official state visit to the United Kingdom in March this year, his actions were called "war crimes" during protests that erupted there.

    "He's still only in his 30s and doesn't know the world yet. He is facing deeply rooted opposition from the royal family and religious circles and his authority is still being solidified," commented a local journalist with experience covering the royal family.

    Saudi Arabia is supported by the particularly fundamentalist movement among Sunni Muslims called Wahhabism, and those related to the movement share authority and power with the royal family. With the rise of the socially forward Crown Prince, there is worry that a rift between the family and the religious powers in the country may develop.

    "Life is too short and a lot of things can happen, and I am really keen to see it with my own eyes," the Crown Prince said in a November 2017 interview with the New York Times. "That is why I am in a hurry."

    (Japanese original by Koichi Shinoda, Cairo Bureau)

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