Saudi Arabia is not the first country that comes to mind when thinking about women’s equality—though there has been some progress on this front. Women were recently given permission to drive cars and enter sports stadiums. But these are two very small drops of water in the larger Saudi society that systematically discriminates against women. This remains true despite what Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said about women’s equality in his first interview to an American television station earlier this week. In the 60 Minutes interview, Norah O’Donnell asks bin Salman if he believes women are equal to men and he responds, “Absolutely. We are all human beings and there is no difference.” O’Donnell and bin Salman go on to have a short conversation about how prior to 1979 women in Saudi Arabia enjoyed many rights; that it wasn’t until Ayatollah Khamenei forced Saudi Arabia to follow his cultural revolution that women were forced into their inferior position in Saudi society. Though this is true to a certain extent, bin Salman’s leadership in women’s equality is tenuous at best. Since the new ruler has come into power, Saudi Arabia has made a few steps, mentioned above, in an attempt to live into his words of equality. What bin Salman has not been able to do is create real, impactful or meaningful change in Saudi society. The women of Saudi Arabia are the ones making that change. Despite the stringent limitations placed on women there, grassroots activism and movements are calling for a change. There are the famous women activists such as Manal al-Sharif who are taking their fight to a global stage, but there also billions on social media platforms using hashtag activism to call for an end to male guardianship. #TogetherToEndMaleGuardianship is just one of many hashtags used by women all over the world, including Saudi Arabia, who are calling for change. And then there are the women that do not have access to the internet, who do not have the opportunity to drive and take their stage fight to a global platform. There are countless women every day who have strength in the face of the patriarchy and who are changing social norms in their families and communities. Prince Mohammed bin Salman can casually drop women’s equality into interviews with American journalists if he wants but that does not mean that equality for women in Saudi Arabia is just around the corner. Until deeply seated patriarchal norms like male guardianship, over censorship of women’s physical appearance, and a religious dogma that has repressed women for generations are changed or eliminated, it is going to take a lot more than giving women the right to drive. True social equality will take time but also a greater effort from bin Salman who himself has been accused of hiding the women in his life from the public eye. If bin Salman really believed in women’s equality, he would demonstrate that in his personal life first. How can his people be expected to embrace equality if he does not himself? The answer is they won’t. It must be recognized that bin Salman’s words were a political move. He is in America explicitly for the purpose of ‘pitching’ Saudi Arabia to the American people and the American people want to hear a crown prince praising women and demanding women’s equality. Bin Salman might be a different kind of leader than has come before him in a country that ranks 138 of 144 on the Gender Gap Report, but that does not mean that women’s equality will become a reality under his rule. He will need to push for more radical cultural reform than entrance into a sports stadium. Equality for women will come from the women themselves. Until bin Salman recognizes that and supports these women who are already doing the work in his country, the sea of black abayas on the streets of Saudi Arabia will trump the image of equality.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.