Saudi Arabia’s announcement on finally allowing women to drive has been praised a milestone for gender equality, but the intent to endorse full and equal rights for Saudi women is still a long road ahead.
Saudi Arabia’s progression
The year of 2017 has been a prominent turning point for the women in Saudi Arabia. With its wishing pursuit to narrow the troubling gender gaps, the country has progressed remarkably: in April, Saudi Arabia was selected by the United Nations Commission to serve as the “Status of Women” in pursuit to protect the rights claimed for women. As a follow-up, the kingdom’s justice ministry approved landmark decisions in support of women’s rights pertaining to protect minors. Finally, in September, Saudi Arabia ended their reign as the only country in the world where women were banned from sitting behind the wheel.
As of 2017, the kingdom is finally liberating itself from decades of religious fundamentalism. In a move lauded worldwide, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud issued a royal decree granting women the right to finally drive. This long-standing policy had become a symbol of global repression and was seen as a stark human rights violation. Lifting this ban will not be immediate, but it is a historic decision that will undoubtedly change the very direction of the country.
How have people in Saudi Arabia reacted?
Men and women of Saudi Arabia have been highly welcoming towards this newly signed law, but the responses do vary. Heaping praise, for instance, has come from women all over the world: an organizer of the Women2Drive movement, Manal al-Sharif’s, voiced, “Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop.” Additionally, a campaigner from the city of Jeddah, Sahar Nassif, was reportedly so excited when she heard the news and began jumping up and down while saying, “I’m going to buy my dream car, a convertible Mustang, and it’s going to be black and yellow!”
Many of the very conservative men, however, have remarkably expressed views such as, “They are too stupid to drive,” to, “It will lead to an intolerable mingling of the sexes.” Another critic went on twitter saying, “As far as I remember, Sharia scholars have said it was haram for women to drive. How come it has suddenly become halal?”
Sheikh Saad al-Hajari, a Saudi clerk, even went as far as publicly saying, “Women should not be allowed to drive because they lack the intellect of men,” which meant that women were incapable of controlling a vehicle. He went on by claiming that, “Their brain power fell to a quarter the size of a male’s when they went to the market.”
Current women rights advocates
Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Crown prince, is currently supporting the decree with an existing programme called, “Vision 2030” that will help modernize the Saudi society and bring it more in line with the rest of the world. He insisted that this move will increase the number of women in the workforce and further help to break down the gender roles, which nevertheless limit social interaction between men and women.
Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal is also a long time advocate for women’s rights in his home country of Saudi Arabia. “Preventing a woman from driving a car is today an issue of rights similar to the one that forbade her from receiving an education or having an independent identity,” Al-Waleed bin Talal said. “They are all unjust acts by a traditional society, far more restrictive than what is lawfully allowed by the precepts of religion.”
Did economic necessity prompt the kingdom to lift the ban?
The royal decree was explained as both a way to benefit the country and its population by equalizing sexes and bringing them closer to the rest of the world, but it was also said to be prompted of economic necessity.
On the historic side, the law had undeniably forced many families to employ private drivers to help transport female relatives when their males were unreachable. An estimation of around 800 000 foreign drivers had been calculated who drove women around. As a result, the Saudi Arabia economy lost billions of dollars every month.
The Saudi Arabia prince, Al-Waleed bin Talal, who conducted this research, stated, “Having women drive has become an urgent social demand predicated upon current economic circumstances.” That being said, the royal decree is a comprehensive plan that is seen as a historical moment for all Saudi women who have patiently been waiting for their chance to fully participate in their country’s economy.
Others have said that despite this recent development, Saudi Arabia remains far away from gender equality. “This is just one step,” said the Amnesty International’s Philip Luther. “We also need to see a whole range of discriminatory laws and practices swept away in Saudi Arabia.”
What’s next for Saudi Arabia?
For many Saudi women, gaining the right to drive is not the end of the struggle. Saudi Arabia still has many laws in place that restrict the rights of women. With the driving ban victory still fresh, Saudi women’s rights activists have already begun to eye up the next hurdle to tackle; attention is now being stirred to the kingdom’s controversial male guardianship law that many hope the government’s next step will be to lift. In these cases where a male guardian holds the authority to make a range of critical decisions on a woman’s behalf, women are required to seek guardian approval for everyday tasks, such as applying for a passport, traveling abroad or getting married.
“Until now, it had seemed impossible that guardianship could ever go away entirely. But with the driving ban soon to be gone, I have new hope that guardianship could soon be history as well,” says Eman Quotah, a Saudi-American writer.
Saudi Arabia has some of the world’s tightest restrictions on women, but things are slowly beginning to modernize. “Saudi Arabia is the world’s most gender-segregated nation,” says National Geographic, “But amid changes now underway, multiple generations of women are debating how to be truly modern and truly Saudi.”
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Written by Sanna Besic (SP1) & Lina Söderström (Pre-IB)