The Changing Face of Saudi Women

Redefining Womanhood in Saudi Arabia

The ultra-conservative country is slowly embracing women's equality, starting with lifting the ban on driving.

Finally, on June 24, Saudi women will be allowed to drive — a fundamental privilege enjoyed by other women around the world. The decision came in October last year, when the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman issued a royal decree lifting the ban, a longstanding policy that had marred Saudi Arabia’s reputation internationally.

Ahead of the historic occasion, FOTO looks back at the images of photographer Lynsey Addario, taken between 2014 and 2015, that documented the gradual progress taking place for Saudi women. "It's not the kind of country where you can just go out on the streets and demand change and it will happen overnight," Addario told Getty Images in an interview last year. "But at the same time I've seen a huge amount of progress in the last 14 years [when I worked there]."

Some of these images depict defiant women carefully testing the boundaries of public life; others show quieter scenes — women laughing with their friends and taking snapshots of their food before a meal, quotidian moments that reveal something outsiders often forget: Behind the abayas, there are full lives being lived.

Above: Women pose behind the wheel of a car at a luxury goods fair in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, in 2015.

DIVIDED Lynsey Addario/Getty Images DIVIDED Although women can now get behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia, there are still many things they can’t do in the gender-segregated country. Physical contact between unrelated women and men is not allowed. Divided areas and boundaries in public spaces like shopping malls serve as constant reminders of the segregation. The male guardianship system, though loosened in recent years, still limits women’s freedom to undergo medical procedures, travel abroad, or get married. Above: A cafe in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, where the lines are separated by gender. FRAGILE PROGRESS Lynsey Addario/Getty Images FRAGILE PROGRESS Just weeks before lifting the driving ban, Saudi authorities arrested 17 activists who campaigned on the issue. The purpose, analysts say, was to send a message: Progress happened—and can only happen—at the will of Saudi royal family, not as the result of decades of restless campaigning by the country’s women’s rights activists. Above, girls play basketball in Jeddah, a liberal Saudi city where religious laws are not strictly enforced, in December 2014. LEARNING, SEGREGATED Lynsey Addario/Getty Images LEARNING, SEGREGATED In a classroom at Al Yamamah University in Riyadh, women and men are separated by a glass window. There are more women college graduates than men in Saudi Arabia, but women’s participation in the workforce is only 22 percent. But the country aims to increase the number to 30 percent by 2030, in hopes that more women working will help lift Saudi Arabia from economic woes caused by declining oil prices. POWER BRUNCH Lynsey Addario/Getty Images POWER BRUNCH Aljazi Alrakan (standing), a dentist and self-described lifestyle blogger, snaps pictures while dining with friends at a restaurant in Riyadh, December 2014. There are many careers that are off-limits to women here, but medicine, retail, and teaching are exceptions. As with all other jobs women perform, though, Alrakan is only allowed to treat other women. A HIP-HOP PARTY Lynsey Addario/Getty Images A HIP-HOP PARTY Walaa Ahmed Marajishi, 22, at her home in Riyadh in March 2015. The family bought the disco ball and speakers to practice dancing for a wedding. When her brother returned from military service, they held a party and the speakers blared American hip-hop. JOBS FOR WOMEN Lynsey Addario/Getty Images JOBS FOR WOMEN Women work in the Glowork job placement agency in Riyadh, November 2014. Founded in 2011 by Khalid AlKhudair, the company places women from around the country both in offices and in work-from-home positions. KICKING HIGH Lynsey Addario/Getty Images KICKING HIGH Halah AIhamrani, 38, a kickboxing instructor and personal trainer, works out in her home in Jeddah, December 2014. INTO THE BLUE Lynsey Addario/Getty Images INTO THE BLUE A Saudi woman takes a scuba diving class in Jeddah, December 2014. SHINING, SECRETLY Lynsey Addario/Getty Images SHINING, SECRETLY Women at a fashion show put on by an Italian stylist in a Riyadh store, December 2014. Saudi women are only allowed to reveal the makeup and clothes they wear under their abayas to their husbands or female friends, but that doesn’t stop them from buying luxury apparel and exploring different styles. In April this year, Saudi Arabia even hosted its first fashion week, something unimaginable until Prince Salman’s recent push for gender equality. HIDDEN GLAMOUR Lynsey Addario/Getty Images HIDDEN GLAMOUR Women at a luxury goods expo at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh, March 2015. GETTING READY Lynsey Addario/Getty Images GETTING READY A family gets dressed before a party at home in Riyadh, March 2015. A NIGHT OUT Lynsey Addario/Getty Images A NIGHT OUT A group of Saudis and foreigners picnic in the desert northeast of Jeddah, December 2014. In Jeddah, a special economic city in western Saudi Arabia, religious policing is less prevalent, making it a popular summer destination for Saudi women from other regions.

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