Theater in Saudi Arabia in general and Jazan theater in particular (Jazan is a city and province in the southwestern part of the country) were historically used to propagate the importance of education and Islamic history, both matters deeply connected to the issue of women’s rights in the kingdom. Especially during the 1930s and 1940s, when the kingdom was still in its modern infancy and much of the population was uneducated and even nomadic, the end of school years were opportunities to advance the kingdom’s agenda of both educating the populace for the future and abiding the social contract the kingdom maintained with the orthodox Wahhabi clergy who set standards of piety enforced with violence by “believers.”
As followers of Saudi Arabia know, strict adherence to original Qu'ranic interpretations of Islamic practice and culture were prejudicial towards the role of women in society. Women and men, until very recently, were not allowed to attend cultural events or entertainment together except in very limited circumstances, and women were not even allowed outside their homes without the attendance of a male relative, and only within the last two years (the decision to allow women to drive was made in 2017 with implementation the following year). That the role of women in Saudi theater was consequently restricted, therefore, is no surprise. Women were neither allowed to act alongside men nor work among them in most capacities (the medical field being a notable exception). Saudi cinema was equally proscribed in the manner in which films could be produced, with plots and gender dictated according to strict Islamic standards. Saudi women have historically been, in short, excluded from their nation’s cultural development.
Restrictions of the role of women in Saudi society were being gradually—very gradually—lifted by the late King Abdullah. Abdullah’s successor, the current king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, elevated his son Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, to the extremely influential position of crown prince, a development of enormous consequence for Saudi society. While the crown prince has been ruthless in his tactics, including being implicated in the death of a Saudi journalist with a US residency permit, Jamal Khashoggi, he has also used his position to advance the cause of women’s rights, including lifting restrictions on their freedom to operate motor vehicles and to attend and cultural events. Assuming the crown prince remains in his position and eventually ascends to the throne currently occupied by his father, further social liberalization should be expected to continue, with positive implications for Saudi women.
A paper focused on Jazan theater and women in Saudi Arabia should begin with a discussion of the historically disadvantaged role of women in Saudi society and how those restrictions extended to theater and cinema. One of the documents linked below will be helpful in this regard. The kingdom’s founding involved the aforementioned contract between founding monarch King Ibn Saud and the Wahhabi movement that militantly defended and advanced its austere interpretation of Islam. Integral to that interpretation is intolerance towards women and non-Muslims, and this was reflected in the evolution of Saudi culture.
A second paragraph could discuss the very recent developments in Saudi Arabia under the control of the crown prince, about which much exists in news stories and analytical articles easily attainable. As Crown Prince bin Salman’s liberalization policy extends to theater, it is appropriate to cover these developments in one’s paper.