Saudi Arabia’s government has taken several progressive steps to advance women’s rights in recent years, including the 2017 lifting of a ban that prohibited women to operate motor vehicles and the 2019 amendment allowing women to divorce and travel without male permission.
Sunday marked the first day both women and men were permitted to sign up and serve in the Saudi Arabian Army, Royal Saudi Navy, Royal Saudi Air Defense, Royal Saudi Strategic Missile Force and Armed Forces Medical Services, according to a new Arab News report.
Under new guidelines from the Saudi Ministry of Defense, male applicants between the ages of 17 and 40 years old and female applicants between the ages of 21 and 40 years old, may serve in military ranks from soldier to sergeant.
Additionally, women are required to be at least 155 centimeters (around 5’1″) tall, and men must have a height of 160 centimeters (around 5’2″) or more.
“In my personal opinion, it is very important for women to be in the military, where they can have an active role in our conservative society,” IT specialist Rhama al-Khayri told the outlet. “Throughout history, we have not heard of a woman who came to the field and fought,” she said. “We always hear about women healing people, or perhaps monitoring supplies in the administration and in the control units. The man is the one who fights in the field.”
Riyadh’s progressive military step comes nearly two weeks after White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that Washington expects “Saudi Arabia to improve its record in human rights.”
“That includes releasing political prisoners such as women’s rights advocates,” Psaki said, tying the Biden administration’s renewed confidence to the February release of Saudi Americans Salah al-Haider and Bader al-Ibrahim, both of whom were jailed in 2019 and slapped with terrorism-related charges.
Days after the press conference, prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was also released by Saudi authorities. The activist was arrested in May 2018, following her work with the ‘Women to Drive’ movement, which included videos of her illegally operating a motor vehicle.
While the ban was lifted via Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s September 2017 order, women were not officially granted the right to drive until new guidelines were drawn up and implemented in June 2018.
Months following the permittance, economist Saad al Dusri told Sputnik that “Saudi women have been driving have contributed to the economic growth of the kingdom,” as car dealers, workshops, insurance companies, and banks receive additional money.
Martin Hvidt, associate professor at the Centre for Contemporary Middle East Studies, concurred that “economic necessity” was a motivating factor for the lifting of the ban. Hvidt also suggested there “will be a gradual change in the role of the woman” in Saudi Arabia.
Months later, Riyadh amended national regulations, allowing adult women to register for marriage or divorce and travel without the approval of their husband or male relative.