By Bailey Brann

On Friday, April 18,  arms filled with popcorn and soda, eager Saudi Arabian audience members were ushered into the cinema to enjoy a night at the movies.

While this may be an experience you’re all too familiar with, it was a landmark moment for citizens of the ultra-conservative Islamic state. The private, invitation-only screening of the acclaimed Marvel movie, Black Panther, marked the first opening of a commercial movie theater in Saudi Arabia in nearly 40 years.

It is easy to see why many Saudis are excited about this movie screening and its future implications, as it is part of a new wave of change engulfing their nation. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is championing this transformation, keen on painting himself as a young, dynamic reformer intent on modernizing the traditionalist absolute monarchy. In his own words on 60 Minutes this past April, Prince Mohammed said himself, women, and men are “absolutely” equal. “We are all human beings and there is no difference,” he said.

While statements like this are sure to ruffle a few feathers among conservative clerics, Prince Mohammed appears determined to increase Saudi Arabia’s appeal among Westerners.

Backed by the support of his father, King Salman, Prince Mohammed has advocated for a number of major social reforms; the heir to the throne seeks to address complaints that the country’s oppressive religious regulations make life in Saudi Arabia miserable (in other words, not fun). Cue the lifting of the ban on commercial cinemas, and now the people of Saudi Arabia can enjoy fun Hollywood movies without being forced to travel to Bahrain or Abu Dhabi to see the latest blockbuster. In fact, Saudi Arabia hopes to invest $64 billion in its entertainment industry, with over 5,000 events planned for this upcoming year. Cirque du Soleil, Andrea Bocelli, and Maroon 5 are just a couple of the names set to perform.

And many of these reforms deal with reversing the monarchy’s repressive gender laws, in particular. Last year, Prince Mohammed dominated headlines for his watershed announcement that the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia—the last law of its kind in the world—will finally be overturned. This move is expected to allow women to participate more fully in the workforce — one that has recently become more inclusive since both genders are now free to join the military and the intelligence service. Furthermore, women are no longer confined to watching sporting matches from their living room television,and instead can physically attend sporting matches for the first time in decades. According to Prince Mohammed, the government is even currently working towards an equal pay initiative!

Nonetheless, while it is imperative that we acknowledge these progressive leaps forward, we cannot forget just how far off Saudi Arabia truly is from achieving genuine gender equality. There is still a seriously oppressive male guardianship system in place throughout the country. All decisions are made for women by a designated male guardian – usually their father, husband, or brother.. Yes, this means that women cannot get a passport, travel outside the country, or get married without male approval. From the moment a woman is born until the day she dies, all major decisions must first pass through her guardian; in some of the more extreme cases, women must even ask before going outside and taking a walk.

Additionally, much of the nation is segregated by gender, with many public buildings containing separate entrances for males and females (including those for universities and banks); A limit exists on how long women can interact with a man they’re not related to; Women are restricted from using public swimming pools available to men, and instead are confined to swimming in private female-only spas; Women aren’t even allowed to try on clothes when shopping. As the list goes on and on, it only becomes clearer just how many restrictions women face every single day.

While this overwhelming list of Saudi Arabia’s equal rights violations makes it seem as though the country will simply never achieve true gender equality, it is important that we don’t lose hope. If you’re feeling pessimistic at the prospect – I know I was – just look at all of the badass Saudi women activists and all they have accomplished.

Take the example of Manal al-Sharif, who fearlessly filmed herself driving and posted the video to YouTube, despite knowing her actions were illegal. She was later arrested and spent nine days in a jail cell. Al-Sharif’s stunt was part of a movement she founded dubbed “Women2Drive.”

“Women campaigning to end this ban have lost their freedom,” she said in an interview with the New York Post. “They have been called every deteriorating name and viciously attacked. They have lost their lives for daring to drive on the streets of Saudi Arabia.”

These courageous activists relentlessly fought for equality, and their actions were finally acknowledged when King Salman lifted the driving ban.

Yet, al-Sharif is not even close to stopping at this victory. “We ask for nothing short of full equality for women,” she wrote on her website . Al-Sharif now has her eyes set on the male guardianship imposed on them… and it’s clear she’s not the only one. Over 15,000 women and men from across Saudi Arabia signed an online petition demanding that the country get rid of its male guardianship system. Following this, people from across the globe immediately began tweeting in support of ending the restrictive system by using the hashtag #IAmMyOwnGuardian. Even more attention was drawn to the movement as people shared inspiring artwork on Twitter and even flaunted custom t-shirts emblazoned with the hashtag.

While it will certainly take time before Saudi Arabia abolishes its antiquated male guardianship system, it doesn’t seem as though the fearless Saudi activists are slowing down anytime soon. Combined with the proliferating effects of social media, movements like these are only gaining speed and awareness. People from all over the world are now taking part in the fight—and so can you! Join the conversation by tweeting #IAmMyOwnGuardian and commenting on others’ social media posts. There are still many roadblocks that lie in the path of true gender equality for Saudi Arabia. Although it might seem impossible, it’s imperative we persist.

After all, a journey of a thousand miles must always begin with one small step… and maybe even a tweet.


Bailey Brann is the Social Media Director at Tough to Tame, double-majoring in Communication Studies and Economics at UCLA. She enjoys PIXAR short films, people-watching, and hiking.