Saudi witnesses historic moment as women throng 'male-only' stadium for National day

AFP

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Saudi Arabia has some of the world's tightest restrictions on women and is the only country where they are not allowed to drive.

Saudi Arabia has some of the world's tightest restrictions on women and is the only country where they are not allowed to drive. (Photo: AFP)

Hundreds of women thronged a sports stadium for the first time to mark Saudi Arabia's national day Saturday, celebrated across the conservative kingdom with a raucous display of concerts, folk dance and fireworks.

The presence of women at the King Fahad stadium marks a departure from previous celebrations in the Gulf kingdom where they are effectively barred from sports arenas by strict rules on public segregation of the sexes.

Women were allowed to enter the stadium, a previously male-only venue used mostly for football matches, with their families and seated separately from single men to watch a musical show and a play on Saudi history.

As a swell of enthusiastic women cheering swept through the stadium, with a few wearing colourful wigs on top of their veils, some Saudi men on social media lauded their participation as a "historic" moment.

Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia has some of the world's tightest restrictions on women and is the only country where they are not allowed to drive, despite ambitious government reforms aimed at boosting female employment.

Under the country´s guardianship system, a male family member -- normally the father, husband or brother -- must grant permission for a woman's study, travel and other activities.

But the kingdom appears to be relaxing some norms as part of its "Vision 2030" plan for economic and social reforms conceived by powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The national day celebration coincides with a crucial time for Saudi Arabia, which is in a battle for regional influence with arch-rival Iran, bogged down in a controversial military intervention in neighbouring Yemen and at loggerheads with fellow US Gulf ally Qatar.

Iconic buildings in Riyadh were bathed in green light and stereos blared patriotic songs as revellers raced through the streets in cars bedecked with the national flag.

With drumming and poetry, traditional sword dancers celebrating the warrior tradition of Saudi Arabia strode through Tahlia Street, an upscale shopping strip in the heart of Riyadh.

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