Middle East

Saudi Arabia: Backlash after women celebrate National Day

Saudi women sit in a stadium to attend an event in the capital Riyadh on 23 September 2017 commemorating the anniversary of the founding of the kingdom Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Saudi women were allowed inside King Fahd Stadium to celebrate for the first time

The Saudi government is facing a backlash on social media after allowing women to participate in its National Day celebrations for the first time.

The festivities included fireworks, light shows and a concert in King Fahd International Stadium in the capital, Riyadh, on Saturday evening.

Women were allowed in the stadium in a specific section for families.

The staunchly conservative Islamic kingdom is known for its strict gender segregation rules.

Saudi Arabia is marking the 87th anniversary of its founding, an event instituted by the late King Abdullah as a national holiday in 2005.

This year's celebrations are part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 plan, which aims to reduce the kingdom's dependence on oil and promote domestic industry and tourism.

Organised by the newly established Entertainment Authority, celebrations also featured street rallies, singing and dancing.

Under Saudi law, which enforces a strict form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, women must wear loose-fitting, full-length robes known as "abayas" in public, as well as a headscarf if they are Muslim.

They are also banned from driving, must not associate with unrelated men and must be accompanied by or receive written permission from a male guardian - usually a father, husband or brother - if they want to travel, work or access healthcare.

'Patriotism does not mean sin'

Although the events were heavily promoted by state media, social media reaction was more polarised.

Despite thousands of messages in support of the national show of patriotism, critics condemned the involvement of women.

"Patriotism does not mean sin. Of course, what is happening does not please God and his prophet. Patriotism is not dancing, free mixing, losing decency and playing music. What strange times," tweeted one user.

The tweet promoted others to use the hashtag "patriotism does not mean sin" to echo a similar message.

Some users called for the return of religious police - commonly known as the Haia - which has not been allowed to arrest citizens since its power was curbed in 2016.

A video of a man telling celebrating crowds "[You have] no shame, no religion, no tribe" was widely shared on social media.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Saudi Arabian law imposes a number of restrictions on women

"The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice should be reinstated and the Entertainment Authority disbanded. The first specialises in enforcement, the other will lead to a disaster," said one person on Twitter.

The Arabic hashtag "the people demand the return of the Haia" has since been used nearly 200,000 times.

But many users disagreed with some of the overtly conservative sentiments.

"They are modest, respectful and mannered. Our men are polite and respectful as you can see in the pictures. We are not sheep as you portray us and they are not wolves as you portray them," wrote one person about women in the King Fahd Stadium.

Another user tweeted: "I was at the national day celebration in Al-Tahlia Street. It was a different atmosphere, reminding me of celebrations abroad. Keep going forward my country."

By the UGC and Social News Team, additional reporting by Mohamed El Aassar from BBC Monitoring

BBC 100 women 2017

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