RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Vogue Arabia dedicated its June issue to the “trailblazing” women of Saudi Arabia by putting a glamorously dressed daughter of a former king behind the wheel of a red convertible on the front cover as the kingdom prepares to become the last country in the world to allow women to drive.
Such an image — Princess Hayfa bint Abdullah Al Saud sitting in the driver’s seat outside the city of Jeddah, wearing leather gloves and stiletto booties, hair peeping out of her white abaya — could until recently have triggered a backlash.
But ultra-religious conservatives who oppose social change have been largely silent as Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman leads a push to loosen social restrictions and overhaul the economy. At the same time, authorities have signalled they intend to tightly restrict political freedoms, with several women’s rights activists detained this month.
The Vogue cover was immediately lampooned on social media, with the faces of some of the detained activists Photoshopped over that of the princess.
“In our country, there are some conservatives who fear change,” Princess Hayfa, the daughter of King Abdullah, who died in 2015, said in her interview with the magazine. “For many, it’s all they have known. Personally, I support these changes with great enthusiasm.”
In another recent move, the kingdom ended its ban on cinemas in April with a showing of “Black Panther.” Women will be allowed to drive from June 24.
Amnesty International described the arrests of the female activists — some of whom have campaigned for years for the right to drive — as a “chilling development” for independent critics of the government. Three of those held were later released, according to an official with the rights group.
Since September, dozens of clerics, intellectuals, businessmen and activists from across the political spectrum have been silenced, tightening the once relatively permissive public discourse in the authoritarian kingdom.
The Vogue Arabia issue features other Saudi women it describes as “paving inspirational paths.” These include Manal al-Sharif, a women’s rights activist, and Saja Kamal, a soccer player attempting to establish the kingdom’s first-ever women’s team.
By Glen Carey, with assistance from Vivian Nereim; editors: Alaa Shahine, Mark Williams, Amy Teibel.