‘Too risky’: Limits to Saudi reforms
If you've ever been concerned about how much a car dealer actually knows about cars, how would you feel about buying one off someone who can't drive?
That's the bizarre case in Saudi Arabia where recent moves to ease restrictions on women have only highlighted how far the country has still to go.
SBS Reporter Calliste Weitenberg travelled to the Middle Eastern kingdom to speak to women who have been affected by the changes for Tuesday's Dateline.
A tightly controlled trip by the Saudi government which was keen for the kingdom to be portrayed in a positive light, unfortunately for them coincided precisely with the moment journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the country's consulate in Istanbul.
"The timing couldn't have been more tense. We got in and out of there before the walls came down," said Ms Weitenberg. She said Khashoggi's death led their government minders to limit who they could approach.
While she was allowed to speak to several women overjoyed at being allowed to now jog in public or simply to buy religious garb not in the standard black, she was prevented from speaking to critics of the measures.
"All this change is completely outshone by Khashoggi's brutal murder and the tyrannical silencing of any dissent," said the Dateline journalist.
Mr Weitenberg said it had taken six months of negotiations to even get a visa to film in Saudi Arabia, a country ruled by the House of Saud, an absolute monarchy.
"For months, I'd been watching headlines lauding the country and its young Crown Prince (Mohammed bin Salman) for a series of progressive social reforms - largely aimed at women. Peddling a more moderate Islam, he'd reined in the religious police."
On the surface, said Ms Weitenberg, you could almost believe Saudi Arabia was like any other country.
"Starbucks, KFC, Nissan and Zara are all there and there were many times during our filming where I forgot I was in one of the most conservative societies in the world for women.
"The truth is right now these two realities somehow coexist as the country faces a generational crossroads."
Indeed, many critics of the reforms have been locked up. Even some of the women who pushed for the reforms that are now in place have been put behind bars, the Crown Prince once lauded for being a reformer also seemingly intent of stamping down on any risk of a vibrant political culture.
"Sharia laws are disguised in an everyday that on the surface is sometimes a lot closer to our own than Australians might think," she said.
"At Starbucks, a perfunctory screen enforces gender segregation as men and women order in separate lines."
First stop was a car dealership where she met two women who were the showroom's newest salespeople. Women working in a car dealership would have been unthinkable just two years ago.
But there was one problem. Neither could drive.
"Our job is to know the car, its features. You don't need to drive in order to do this," said one.
Women are indeed now allowed to drive. But the stigma of doing so lingers, leading many to remain in the passenger seat.
One person who wasn't worried about getting behind the wheel was Hatoon Kadi. She's already breaking the mould for women in Saudi Arabia by being a comedian with a following on YouTube. Now she drives too.
"Lifting the ban on driving changed my life 180 degrees," she said.
"In the last two years we have seen so many big changes we're not able to breathe."
Looking ahead to a time when the oil rich nation can no longer rely on natural resources to pay its bills, the Crown Prince decided to exploit the resources of women. Currently women make up just 22 per cent of the Saudi workforce. The aim is to get to a modest 30 per cent.
But like most of the women Ms Weitenberg spoke too, Ms Kadi was careful not to wish for too much. Asked what the aim was for her YouTube clips, which touch on social issues, she was circumspect.
"I want to touch on issues and if they want to change them it's up to them."
Then there was another first - a women's running group in Riyadh. But even while working out, the members have to wear abayas, long cloaks, to cover their limbs. And no men are allowed to join them.
One member said too much at once would be threatening - like if someone ran towards you at full pelt. But gradual changes, well they were like walking and no one was worried about a stroll.
Saudis young and old, Ms Weitenberg said, remained painfully aware of the risks of crossing a line.
"Questions around freedom of speech hang heavy over all my conversations and interviews are often prefaced by agreeing on topics we cannot discuss. The entire time we're filming, I'm shadowed by government minders."
Mr Weitenberg said Mr Khashoggi's death had led to a "profound chilling effect" on the ground.
"As the leash around freedom of speech is tightened, the country's brightest minds and voices are either silenced or self-censored. "
YouTuber Ms Kadi summed it up: "I would rather work within the boundaries and convey my message rather than trying to push lines.
"It's too risky for me. If I cross the line with society, I will lose this small space."
SBS Dateline program 'Saudi's Freedom Test Drive' is available to watch now on the SBS website.