Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a trend towards liberalization of long-held policies regarding women but has anything changed for the country’s LGBTQ population?
The Saudi government recently announced that on June 24, women would finally be allowed to drive, and even let ten women swap their foreign drivers licenses for Saudi licenses. The move will make Iran the only country where women are not allowed to drive cars – or even motorcycles.
Lifting the prohibition against women drivers is just one of the reforms taking place as part of a push for “liberalization” led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
- Movie theaters are opening again, music concerts will fill the air with song, and women will even be allowed to attend soccer matches at public stadiums.
- The Shura Council, the kingdom’s formal advisory body, passed a law criminalizing sexual harassment.
- The Crown Prince has also suggested that wearing an abaya or hijab is a matter of choice for women.
As exciting as these changes are, they don’t necessarily mean that the extreme religious conservatism that’s held Saudi Arabia in its grip for decades is going away entirely.
Saudi Arabia remains one of 72 countries worldwide where gay relationships are outlawed, and homosexuality is punishable by death. It continues to be one of the most dangerous countries to be a LGBTQ citizen.
- A teen in Riyadh committed suicide after coming out and being threatened with death by his father.
- Saudi authorities arrested everyone involved in an alleged same-sex wedding after video of two men in traditional Saudi dress in an apparent wedding ceremony went viral.
- In 2016, four gay men in Saudi Arabia were arrested just for living as couples, following reports that they had held wedding parties and lived together as though they were married.
- A man in Jeddah was arrested for flying a rainbow flag at his home, despite not knowing what it symbolized.
- A Saudi newspaper reported that prosecutors were pushing to enforce the death penalty for homosexuality – because social media is turning people gay.
- A Saudi court sentenced a 24-year-old man to three years in prison and 450 lashes for trying to arrange a date with another man via Twitter.
- Another Saudi man was sentenced to three years in prison for “immoral acts” after authorities found “offensive” pictures on his phone and social media posts where he sought to meet other men for sex.
- A 30-year-old Saudi man was arrested for using Facebook to date other men.
Despite “liberalization,” LGBTQ Saudis still live under the threat of arrest and punishments including lashings, prison, fines, chemical castration, and even death.
But there is hope for change.
In 2016, top Saudi Muslim scholar Dr Salman al-Ouda, member of the International Union for Muslim Scholars and director of Islam Today, called for an end to the punishment of LGBTQ people. “Even though homosexuality is considered a sin in all the Semitic holy books,” he said in an interview, “it does not require any punishment in this world. It is a sin that will accompany its committee in the life after death.”
Harvard Professor Steven Pinker writes in his book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, that the values of young Muslims in the Middle East are “comparable to those of young people in Western Europe, the world’s most liberal culture, in the early 1960s.
Pinker says that liberalization in the Middle East, as in the Western world, is mostly driven by generational turnover. As younger Saudis age and replace the older generations, they will likely bring their values to bear more and more upon Saudi culture and society.
Liberalization in the Middle East still lags behind the rest of the world. After all, it took ten years to lift the prohibition on women driving. Then-Saudi King Abdullah liked the idea but thought society wouldn’t go for it.
It may take even longer for liberalization to encompass protecting the rights of LGBTQ Saudis.
In the meantime, those of us who enjoy more protections must continue to support activists working for change in countries with little to no protections for LGBTQ people and demand that our governments support the human and civil rights of LGBTQ people worldwide — even as we continue to fight for our own at home.