The extremely conservative Saudi religious police announced that they will now allow women to ride motorbikes and bicycles in designated areas. Women will be allowed to ride bikes as long as they are accompanied by a male relative and dressed in full abaya. According to an official, women will only be able to use their bikes for entertainment not for transportation.
Perhaps the religious police have a way of discerning when someone is riding their bike for enjoyment versus when they are riding it for the purpose of transport. If someone is going around in a circle, well that's clearly entertainment. If a person, however is riding in a straight line, that's definitely transportation. All joking aside, this change is one of many currently taking place inside the kingdom.
To individuals outside of Saudi Arabia, being allowed to ride ones bike hardly seems like a big deal. For westerners especially it serves as a reminder of just how vastly different our cultural practices are. The women of Saudi Arabia likely view it much differently. In 2011 King Abdullah granted women the right to vote and run in municipal elections. Saudi-social media and internal organizing of women inside the country helped to make that change possible. There have been sustained campaigns to overturn the driving ban in Saudi Arabia by encouraging women to get behind the wheel of a car. "Women 2 Drive" campaign participants uploaded their experiences to YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
In January, 30 women were sworn into Shura Council, the consultative body that advises the government. On March 31 it was was announced that women would be allowed to join sports clubs. It was previously banned in the country as it was believed that strenuous exercise could cause women to "lose their virginity" by tearing the hymen. The country also sent its first female athletes to compete in the the 2012 London Olympics. Progress in the ultra-conservative country is still painstakingly slow and not without consequences. There are some in Saudi Arabia who believe that these changes are the result of embarrassment the government feels by the way the international community perceives it. The changes the country is currently undergoing is likely the result of sustained internal and external pressure.
The path to equality for women in Saudi Arabia, cannot and and should not be defined by western ideals. Women must be allowed to access their own political and social agency in the struggle for equality. While we may view the right to ride one's bike as trivial, it is part of a larger dialogue about women's rights happening inside that country. One that is being guided by women activists and leaders who will continue to shape the future of Saudi Arabia.