Photos by Lynsey Addario
Text by Ye Charlotte Ming
“When I started going there, I could barely leave the hotel without a man,” Addario said. “I always had to have an escort from the ministry of information. When I took my camera out, people would literally run away from me.”
Saudi Arabia is indeed one of the most gender-segregated nations in the world. Women have to be covered in the ankle-length, all-black abayas in public. Physical contact between unrelated women and men are not allowed. Divided areas and boundaries in public spaces like shopping malls serving as constant reminders of the segregation. The male guardianship system, though loosened in recent years, still limits women’s freedom to undergo medical procedures, travel abroad, or get married.
But after having worked in the oil-rich Kingdom for 14 years, Addario has witnessed a gradual change take place.
Women recently began filling up workplaces after a long social campaign, though the office spaces are still separated by gender. In 2015, women were granted the right to vote and run for seats in local councils. And, to many’s surprise, King Salman issued a royal decree to lift the ban on women driving on October 2, a longstanding policy that has marred Saudi Arabia’s reputation internationally.
The change came after years of restless campaigning by the country’s women’s rights activists, who risked their own personal safety.
“There are really brave Saudi women who have pushed the boundaries, who have gone to prison, who have been humiliated in the public and in private for going out there, and now the right has been granted.”
Addario recalls an instance in 2011 when she was in the backseat of a car driven by Maha al Qahtani, a Saudi woman who learned to drive while living in the U.S.
“A lot of these female activists have been driving for many years in the U.S. because they got their license when they lived in the U.S. They were very experienced drivers but were not allowed to drive inside Saudi Arabia,” Addario said. In that particular case, Al Qahtani was stopped by six police cars and was given a traffic ticket.
In another case in 2015, Addario was taking photos in a car where two female activists were filming a video that aims to encourage other women to drive.
“We were on a residential street so we didn't get pulled over,” Addario said. “But the driver and the woman filming her were both very scared and very nervous because it was a time in 2015 when many activists were being put into prison, and there was already a woman in jail for driving.”
Addario acknowledged that there are still many things women are not allowed to do in the ultraconservative nation, and there has always been pushback to any gains women have achieved. “It's not the kind of country where you can just go out on the streets and demand change and it will happen overnight,” Addario explained. “But at the same time I've seen a huge amount of progress in the last 14 years.”
That’s what Addario wanted to show when she set out to shoot her photo series, the Changing Face of Saudi Women, an assignment for National Geographic that ultimately took two years to produce, because of the difficulties gaining access to photograph her subjects.
“Photographing women is extremely sensitive in Saudi Arabia because the culture is very conservative, and many women are concerned what their friends and what their family will say,” Addario said. “I approach [the women] very respectfully and ask permission straight up. I don't try to steal photos and I don't try to sneak around because I understand how taboo it is."
“Some women simply didn't have issues with being photographed, and others wanted to break the stereotype."
The images Addario brought back depict defiant women carefully testing the boundaries of public life. In one picture, a kickboxing instructor in sportswear fiercely demonstrates her skills in an all-women gym; in another, a singer practices with her band at home, preparing to perform at weddings and other events.
Other pictures show quieter scenes — women laughing with their friends, and taking snapshots of their food before a meal, quotidian moments that reveal something outsiders often forget: Behind the dark abayas, there are full lives being lived.