Saudi Arabia has celebrated its own Women’s Day, a first for the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom.
A three-day gathering was held at the King Fahd Cultural Centre in the capital of Riyadh.
It featured speakers who argued for women’s rights to drive and called for an end to the country's male guardianship system.
Female members of the Saudi royal family also attended the event, with Princess Al-Jawhara bint Fahd Al-Saud hosting a discussion on women’s roles in education.
“We want to celebrate the Saudi woman and her successful role, and remind people of her achievements in education, culture, medicine, literature and other areas,” Mohammed Al-Saif, a spokesman for the centre, told Arab News.
The kingdom has been heavily criticised for its record on women’s rights, where women are severely restricted.
The World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Gender Gap report ranked Saudi Arabia 134 out of 145 countries for gender equality.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are prohibited from driving and are unable to obtain a driving licence.
It also has a law stating that all women must have a male guardian, typically a husband, father or brother, who gives them permission to study, travel abroad or marry.
A Human Rights Watch report on male guardianship found “a woman’s life is controlled by a man from birth until death” in Saudi Arabia, as their ability to pursue a career or make life decisions is restricted.
Despite limited reforms in 2009 and 2013 to reduce male control over women, which included no longer requiring permission for women to work and making domestic abuse illegal, the report found the system remains largely in place.
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
In October 2014, three lawyers, Dr Abdulrahman al-Subaihi, Bander al-Nogaithan and Abdulrahman al-Rumaih , were sentenced to up to eight years in prison for using Twitter to criticize the Ministry of Justice.
In March 2015, Yemen’s Sunni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was forced into exile after a Shia-led insurgency. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition has responded with air strikes in order to reinstate Mr Hadi. It has since been accused of committing war crimes in the country.
Women who supported the Women2Drive campaign, launched in 2011 to challenge the ban on women driving vehicles, faced harassment and intimidation by the authorities. The government warned that women drivers would face arrest.
Members of the Kingdom’s Shia minority, most of whom live in the oil-rich Eastern Province, continue to face discrimination that limits their access to government services and employment. Activists have received death sentences or long prison terms for their alleged participation in protests in 2011 and 2012.
All public gatherings are prohibited under an order issued by the Interior Ministry in 2011. Those defy the ban face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on charges such as “inciting people against the authorities”.
In March 2014, the Interior Ministry stated that authorities had deported over 370,000 foreign migrants and that 18,000 others were in detention. Thousands of workers were returned to Somalia and other states where they were at risk of human rights abuses, with large numbers also returned to Yemen, in order to open more jobs to Saudi Arabians. Many migrants reported that prior to their deportation they had been packed into overcrowded makeshift detention facilities where they received little food and water and were abused by guards.
The Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny access to independent human rights organisations like Amnesty International, and they have been known to take punitive action, including through the courts, against activists and family members of victims who contact Amnesty.
Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for using his liberal blog to criticise Saudi Arabia’s clerics. He has already received 50 lashes, which have reportedly left him in poor health.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Dawood al-Marhoon was arrested aged 17 for participating in an anti-government protest. After refusing to spy on his fellow protestors, he was tortured and forced to sign a blank document that would later contain his ‘confession’. At Dawood’s trial, the prosecution requested death by crucifixion while refusing him a lawyer.
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 aged either 16 or 17 for participating in protests during the Arab spring. His sentence includes beheading and crucifixion. The international community has spoken out against the punishment and has called on Saudi Arabia to stop. He is the nephew of a prominent government dissident.
Towards the end of last year, a Saudi man was jailed for a year after calling for an end to the system.
The kingdom is preparing to begin several cultural and economic reforms, known as Vision 2030.
However, the reforms have already been attacked by the country’s religious authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, who said legalising cinemas and concerts could lead to the “mixing of sexes” and “atheistic or rotten” influences.