On Tuesday, Sept. 27, King Salman of Saudi Arabia issued a royal decree revoking the ban on women driving in the country. Until last week, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world that had legislation legally preventing women from driving. King Salman additionally established a high-level committee that will study the implementation of this change so that it can take effect in June 2018.
Since the revocation was announced, there have been mixed responses on social media. Some women have praised the change, but others are critical. Unfortunately, there have also been some violent threats made by individuals calling for any woman found driving to be killed. Of course, this sort of radical change coming from the top-down brings to light the good, bad, and ugly that exists in every society.
When hearing about this news, the initial reaction of anyone who supports women’s rights and gender equality would probably be something like, “Yes! That’s great!” But I can’t help but wonder what possible ulterior motives the Saudi government had when making this decision.
Consider the following: Women in Saudi Arabia have been fighting for this basic right to travel by car alone since the 1990s. Through the decades, women have been detained (unjustly, of course), humiliated and shamed, just because they were trying to get a chance to sit in the driver’s seat. Some examples include the cases of Manal al-Sharif, Loujain al-Huthloul and Maysa al-Amoudi. Al-Sharif posted a video of herself driving in 2011, and was arrested shortly afterward. She was later incarcerated in subhuman conditions for over a week. After she was released, she moved to Australia. Al-Huthloul was arrested when she was driving to the border between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in 2014, and al-Amoudi was arrested when she arrived there to support her friend. They were detained and kept in custody for almost a month.
Why is it that all of a sudden, this absolute monarch wants to give the right to drive to his female citizens? One theory is that this is a PR stunt to distract from all the arbitrary arrests that the government has made. Professor Madawi al-Rasheed — a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science — wrote a recent article about these arrests. These detainees — clerics, activists, and professionals — all have agendas different from the conservative Saudi government. According to al-Rasheed, 30 people of such professions have been arbitrarily arrested since Sept. 9. The Saudi government is not making way for new — just trying to cover up corruption and tyranny under a warm, fuzzy blanket.
Another theory is that this is simply an economic move. As the economy is evolving in Saudi Arabia, companies are having to be more diverse with their employment demographic. More than half of college grads in Saudi Arabia are women, and more than half of those women go on to attain higher degrees. The workforce must now consist of more than just males.
Regardless of why the government lifted the ban, there are still many issues regarding the autonomy of women in Saudi Arabia. Under the guardianship laws, women still need permission from a male guardian for a variety of things — traveling abroad, applying for a passport, getting married, and now, obtaining a driver’s license. Will women have any new sense of autonomy once they are able to drive while these guardianship laws are still in place? Possibly — but several more reforms will need to occur for women in Saudi Arabia to have the same rights as their male counterparts. Our western perception of Middle Eastern societies may sometimes be distorted, but the women of Saudi Arabia are resilient and strong and will forge their path to equality and freedom.