Reform in Saudi Arabia continued this week, as plans were announced to allow 100 female nurses to retrain as paramedics in order to provide emergency medical treatment. The immediate cause was the scandal of a young woman who collapsed while suffering a heart attack at an all-women's university and died because male paramedics were not allowed on campus to treat her.
Saudi rules governing what women can and cannot do and how they must interact with men are notoriously strict. As a result, activities that would be commonplace in all other parts of the world are strictly forbidden in the theocratic kingdom, producing surprising and sometimes tragic results.
This was made clear once again when Amna Bawazeer collapsed on the campus of King Saud University. Reports have circulated that when male paramedics arrived to treat Bawazeer, they were denied entry for approximately one hour, until all female students in the building were confirmed to be in full Islamic dress. When Bawazeer's brother arrived, he was similarly prevented from entering. Although it was his sister who was dying, there could have been a chance that he would have seen other uncovered women as he tried to save Amna's life.
The story ignited outrage and anger across Saudi Arabia. Bawazeer's death demonstrated that these restrictions and prohibitions are not simply colloquial cultural practices that can be shrugged off. Women actually die because of these rules.
It is worth recalling the horrific fire at the girls school in Mecca in 2002. Fifteen girls died because the Saudi religious police barred them from leaving the burning building. Their reason? The girls were not wearing the appropriate attire; they were indecent and couldn't be allowed outside.
Mecca is, of course, the holiest city in Islam. As is typical of Saudi girls schools, the gates were locked to maintain the strict segregation of the sexes. In order to prevent the girls from leaving the fire without their required black robes, the religious police beat them back. At the same time, they prevented men at the scene from rescuing them.
For Bawazeer, little had changed in the past decade.
Of course, incremental reforms have been adopted in Saudi Arabia in recent years. Women were permitted to ride bicycles for the first time last year, although the ban on driving cars remains firmly in place. In order to ride a bicycle in the kingdom, however, women still need to wear their long, flowing abayas and scarves, making the act of bike riding quite dangerous. In addition, by decree of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, bicycles may only be ridden as a form of entertainment and not — repeat, not — for purposes of transportation. A male guardian must accompany the brave female cyclist at all times.
In 2012, two women were added at the last minute to Saudi Arabia's Olympic delegation to the Summer Olympics in London. Long-standing opposition to the inclusion of female athletes was finally dropped by Riyadh, although it was quite telling that neither of the women resided in Saudi Arabia at the time. Strict limits are placed there on the extent to which women may participate in sports. At the London Olympics, Sarah Attar and Wojdan Shahrkhani were required to wear hooded bodysuits while competing in the 800-meter run and judo, respectively.
Despite steps taken by the Saudi royal family to accommodate women more in daily life and to allow them more of the same rights and liberties as men, progress has been patchy at best. The much-hated ban on women driving cars is still in place, allowing Saudi Arabia the unique honor of being the only country on the planet that doesn't allow female drivers.
During President Barack Obama's recent visit, Saudi women went so far as to organize a day of protest to publicly disobey the driving ban. Protesters face arrest if they are discovered driving by authorities. Although activists, including Amnesty International, encouraged Obama to mention the denial of human rights to women on his visit, he demurred. His administration has repeatedly avoided conflict with Riyadh on these issues, despite growing recognition around the world that requiring a woman to have the permission of a male relative to obtain schooling, take a job, travel and get married is discrimination at a level that can no longer be tolerated.
Bawazeer's death demonstrated the serious consequences that result from these extensive restrictions. A few female paramedics are not enough to ensure that such tragedies no longer occur. Eventually, Riyadh will have to recognize that its duty to its female citizens is a higher priority than its awkward accommodation of the country's conservative religious forces.
Timothy Spangler is a writer and commentator who divides his time between Los Angeles and London. His radio show, "The Bigger Picture with Timothy Spangler," airs every Sunday night from 10 p.m. to midnight Pacific time on KRLA AM 870. To find out more about Timothy Spangler and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.