Saudi TV broadcasts iconic female singer Umm Kulthum concert after decades-long ban

Female singers returned to state-run television in Saudi Arabia after a ban that lasted over 30 years, in the country’s latest step towards projecting a more progressive image.

Al-Thaqafiya, Riyadh’s channel dedicated to cultural programmes, aired a lengthy concert of iconic Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum on Tuesday, days after it announced the end of its ban on women drivers.


A source at the channel told popular daily Okaz that the broadcast marked the return of the “sound of the female singing voice” to official Saudi media and future concerts will include other classic women artist.

Umm Kulthum was one of the most influential Arab singers of the last century, she enjoys legendary status across the Middle East, where she is known as “The Lady”.

News website Sabq said that Umm Kulthum had been chosen to be the first female singer back on television because most of her songs are free from “indecent lyrics” and her performances “lack immoral imagery”.

Women singers were banned from state television in the wake of the 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by extremist insurgents, who were inspired in part by what they saw as the liberalisation of Saudi culture.

The strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam bans certain types of music.

Saudi Arabia has cautiously begun introducing entertainment, including music concerts, despite opposition from hardliners in the kingdom, where public cinemas and theatre are banned.

Last month, Saudi Arabia said it would allow driving permits for women under a royal decree to take effect in June, sparking euphoria and disbelief among activists who long fought a ban.

The conservative kingdom was the only country in the world to ban women from taking the wheel, and it was seen globally as a symbol of repression in the country.

Riyadh has since ruled that women are allowed to issue religious edicts and said it is preparing a draft law to combat sexual harassment.

The kingdom, however, still has some of the world’s tightest restrictions on women: under the state guardianship system, a male family member – normally the father, husband or brother – must grant permission for a woman’s study, travel and other activities.

Human Rights Watch has called on Riyadh to end the guardianship system and not impose any additional restrictions on women that it does not impose on men.

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