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Saudi women can now enlist in the army

Saudi Arabia has been accused of torturing women's rights activists [Getty]

Date of publication: 3 October, 2019

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The decision comes after a string of reforms, such as the historic reversal of the kingdom’s ban on female drivers.

Women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to serve in the army for the first time in the kingdom's history, according to Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.

Saudi women were previously allowed only to join the security services, operating in areas including combatting the drug trade, prison surveillance, and criminal investigations. 

"Women's admission into the most important ministry in the kingdom is a major step in the right direction," Hassan al-Shihiri, an former official at the Defence Ministry, told the newspaper.

"There are vast prospects at the ministry that can absorb thousands of women who can make a difference in their positions," he added.

This initiative is part of Vision 2030, the centerpiece reform programme launched by controversial Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Vision 2030 aims to make the kingdom's economy independent from oil and institute a number of social reforms which are likely to attract more foreign investment.

"I will not say the ball is now in the women's court, but I am confident that women's achievements can soon happen," Shura Council Member Haya al-Maneea told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Smokescreen

Saudi women were last year finally granted the right to drive after decades of campaigning. Women over 21 were earlier this year given the right to travel without a male guardian's permission.

Critics of the ultraconservative kingdom say such reforms act as a smokescreen to obfuscate Saudi Arabia's continuing human rights abuses.

The ban on women drivers was lifted just weeks after bin Salman ordered the arrest of multiple women's rights activists who had long campaigned for their right to drive.

Saudi Arabia remains one of the worst performing countries regarding gender equality in political and economic leadership, according to the World Economic Forum. 

Egypt, Yemen, and Pakistan join the kingdom in having less than 7 percent of women in decision making positions, placing it at the 141th place out of 149 countries surveyed.  

Women make-up a mere 23 percent of the labour force participation, only 6 percent of legislative and managerial positions, and only two out of ten parliamentarians are female. 

The kingdom has also been criticised for its treatment of ten women activists currently on trial for charges, described as "bogus" by Amnesty International, including contact with foreign media, diplomats and human rights groups.

Loujain al-Hathloul, a longtime campaigner for women's right to drive, is among those on trial. Her family says she has been tortured and sexually harassed while in prison.

In an interview with CBS's "60 Minutes" on Sunday, the crown prince was asked whether reports of Hathloul's torture were true.

"If this is correct, it is very heinous," he responded. "Islam forbids torture. The Saudi laws forbid torture. Human conscience forbids torture." 

While Saudi Arabia's criminal code indeed prohibits torture, the kingdom has been routinely accused of torture by human rights organisations.

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