09/23/2017, 17.39
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Riyadh to modernise, opening stadium to women and allowing voice/video calling

Saudi women will be able to attend 87th National Day event in stadium seated with their families but separately from single men. Voice and video calling is now available. Rights groups slam the kingdom for arresting dissidents.

Riyadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Saudi monarchy has taken few steps towards modernisation. It is lifting a ban on some Internet apps and is allowing women in stadiums. This comes against a backdrop of accusations of human rights violations levelled against the kingdom.

This weekend, women and their families will be allowed into the King Fahd stadium in Riyadh to mark the ultraconservative kingdom’s 87th National Day. Previously, only men could enter. Families will be allowed, but will seated separately from single men.

This openness is part of the process of small improvements of the status of women in the Wahhabi kingdom, which still severely restricts women's rights. Saudi women must cover their hair and body when in public, and cannot drive, travel or receive medical care without the permission of a male guardian (usually father, husband or son).

In June, prince and former minister Faisal bin Abdullah showed some more flexibility towards women when he spoke out in favour of women’s right to drive. At present, they could be lashed ten times if caught behind the wheel of a car. As of July, Saudi girls can engage in physical exercises in public schools.

The latest wave of changes affects not only women but also internet access. Starting last Wednesday, Saudis have access to voice and video calling apps such as WhatsApp and Skype.

In 2013 Saudi authorities blocked Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) apps in order to "protect society". Now the ministry of communications said access to it would be "widely available to users".

The announcement comes only days after Snapchat blocked Al Jazeera from its app. Snapchat is an image messaging and multimedia mobile application.

Saudi officials accused the Qatar-based network of being a "harmful, propaganda-pushing channel that supports extremism".

Saudi Arabia blocked access to Al Jazeera's website at the end of May, shortly before the country severed all links with Qatar.

Recently, the Saudi kingdom has received harsh criticism from human rights organisations for reportedly detaining scores of dissident clerics and intellectuals.

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