Rima bint Bandar, the 41-year old daughter of Bandar bin Sultan, who served as the Saudi ambassador to Washington for 22 years until 2005, was recently named head of the women's section at the General Authority for Sports, the nation's sports ministry. Though promising more details on what she hoped to accomplish in the new role in the days to come, Rima noted that her programme fit within the broader framework of the Kingdom's efforts to reduce obesity and encourage physical fitness. In an interview, she hinted that her agenda would include campaigning for female coaches, women's bathrooms in public places, and Shariah-compliant workout clothes. She also spoke of plans to help licence gyms and make outdoor spaces more amenable for women's activities. "Our biggest mandate right now is mass participation", Rima said, warning that the pace of change would not be as rapid as Western audiences might hope for.
Few subjects are as controversial in the ultra-conservative country as women's rights, and efforts to promote women's greater inclusion in society have always been fraught with tension. Perhaps the most famous example is King Faysal's promotion of girls' education in the early 1950's, when, inspired by the example of his wife Iffat, he stood firm and faced down an open revolt from religious clerics. More recently, the issue of women and driving has captured media attention, although Saudi women themselves are mostly ambivalent, preferring to focus on more immediately relevant concerns such as employment and the custom of legal guardianship. King Abdallah emerged as something of an advocate of women, albeit in the teeth of fierce opposition from traditionalists. He insisted, for example, that the newly built King Abdallah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) be co-educational, a place where, uniquely in the Kingdom, young men and women in classrooms and libraries would be allowed to intermingle. "We refuse to marginalise the role of women in Saudi society," the king said at the time. Nonetheless, he added that "the development we are working at must be gradual."
More significantly, Abdallah in 2009 named a woman, Nura al-Faiz, deputy education minister - another first for the Kingdom. Determined to place women in the limelight, he went even further in February 2013, appointing 30 women, all prominent in their fields, to the 150-member Shura, known as the Saudi Consultative Council. They included university graduates, human rights activists and two royals - Sarah bint Faysal and Mudhi bint Khalid. Clerics held a sit-in protest outside the royal court. Critics, however, say that the royal initiatives during his reign were largely symbolic, bringing only marginal advances for women, while failing to secure fundamental rights of free expression, association, and assembly.
Ominously, King Salman ordered the removal of Nurah, whose tenure had been marked by controversies, in April 2015, shortly after coming to power. A few months earlier, Salman had fired Shaykh Abd al-Latif Al al-Shaykh, the Hay'a (religious police) chief who was considered a reformer and demonstrated some sympathy toward women, and reinstated a cleric previously fired by Abdallah for criticizing his proposal for mixed education at KAUST. Salman is known to hew more closely to the religious conservatives than his predecessor, and there is concern Abdallah's push for greater women's participation will now grind to a halt. The crown prince too, has never shown much interest in reform, dismissing calls for women being allowed to drive, for example, with the by now customary evasion that it is a matter for society to decide, rather than an issue requiring some initiative from the government. Muhammad bin Salman, the deputy crown prince, has also prevaricated on the subject, evasively giving much the same response when pressed for a timeline on the driving ban, though in some regards he has shown himself more sympathetic.