For the first time in its history, leaders in the conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia will allow women to join the country's military. According to a swath of reports from the region's media, the announcement was made last week, and women will have until Thursday, March 1 to submit their applications. Those who move forward will be interviewed and tested.
The decision to allow female recruits comes as the Saudi King, broadly known in the West as "King Salman," has moved toward modernizing the hyper-traditional state. Opening military applications to women has largely been characterized as part of Salman's Vision 2030 plan, which aims to reduce the country's dependence on oil and diversify the economy. Part of this has included increased attention toward expanding women's rights.
The BBC reports that interested women will be allowed to apply for security roles, which are not combat positions. They will also be required to meet twelve stipulations.
Among these requirements is that applicants must be between the ages of 25 and 35 and be at least five feet tall. They must not be married to a non-Saudi and also must hold a high school diploma.
While opening military applications to women appears to signify a shift toward more female independence, one stipulation also requires that the applicants and their male guardians must live in the same region where the job takes place. Male guardians are usually a woman's husband, brother, father, or son.
Under the guardianship program, women must gain permission in order to travel abroad, get a passport, marry, or leave prison. Guardians may also be required to provide permission to work or access healthcare services. According to Human Rights Watch, the Saudi government has previously promised to end the male guardianship program, but it is still in place. In a 2018 report, the human rights advocacy research group described the guardianship program as "discriminatory."
Back in 2016, thousands of Saudis signed an online petition demanding that the guardianship rules come to an end. Specifically, opponents to the guardianship program argue that it demotes women to second-class citizens because they are not allowed to function within society — or the economy — as fully legal adults.
Additionally, the King's Vision 2030 plan includes the goal of increasing women's participation in the workforce to 30 percent. Requiring that would-be women workers acquire permission obtain jobs runs counter to the vision's longterm plans.
Twice the Saudi government has promised to end the program — in 2009 and then in 2013. But instead of abolishing wholesale what is effectively legalized paternalism, Saudi leaders have opted to take baby steps. In September of 2017, for example, officials announced that they would begin letting women legally drive, starting in June of 2018. As of the announcement, the kingdom was the only country in the world to unilaterally forbid women from obtaining drivers licenses.
By and large, the Gulf Kingdom was praised for its decision, which the international community described as progress in the right direction. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres praised the announcement in a tweet.
"I welcome Saudi Arabia's decision to lift the ban on women drivers. An important step in the right direction," he wrote.
Women have struggled to gain equality in Saudi Arabia largely because the laws and traditions there enforce Wahhabism, an extremely strict version of Sunni Islam that has historically been used to justify gender-based restrictions. In public, for example, women in the Gulf country are required to wear an abaya — a long cloak — as well as, generally, a headscarf. While modest dress is encouraged within Islam, Saudi Arabia is one of few places in the world to legally require it. Earlier this month, a local cleric declared that the abaya should not be required, though whether the government will remove the legal enforcement is yet unclear.