On a hot Friday morning in early August, the sound of giggles and whispers permeated the usually uninviting lobby of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, as some 50 female Embassy employees gathered in the ballroom to meet their new boss. Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, had only been in Washington for a few weeks, and this was her first group meeting of Embassy staff—but only the women. The room was hushed as she entered, in pants and a black-and-white jacket, without the customary headscarf worn in male company. She stopped short of the podium and sat on a set of steps, eye to eye with her employees.
“Today, it’s just the women,” she said. “It is our day to celebrate.”
Earlier that day, the Saudi government had announced it was relaxing the country’s so-called “guardianship” system, a mixture of laws and customs requiring women to get permission from men in their families to make all manner of personal decisions. The ambassador talked the women through their new rights, including obtaining passports and traveling abroad, registering marriages, filing for divorce and serving as legal guardians for children. Despite her royal status, the princess explained that, as a divorced mother, she was only now the head of her own household.
“You have unalienable rights now,” she told the women. “The right to your own identity, to move, dream, work.” But the new freedoms, she cautioned, came with new responsibilities. “Know where your money is,” she told them. Be “gracious” to Saudi men, who have no user manual to navigate this new world. “We are going to have to have a very emotional learning curve on what we are now allowed to do,” she said.