SAUDI ARABIA: Women Driving in Saudi, Women’s Rights Victory or Economic Ploy?

NADIA ALJOJO WRITES – According to a Saudi Arabian cleric, Saad Al-Hijri, “women have half a brain,” and once they go shopping they, “return with a quarter of a brain, [so] how can she get a driver’s license with a quarter of a brain?” Although later punished for speaking such prejudiced absurdity, the sentiment that women are less than men continues to be prevalent throughout the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This discrimination manifests itself within the public domain through laws and policies. The policy, which bans women from driving alone, is the most notorious policy because it is the only policy in the world of its kind.

The conservative monarchy issued the driving ban on women in 1957, which denies women the right to obtain a license and legally drive. Official protests against the ban began in 1990, when 47 women in Riyadh drove in a 14-car convoy to protest the ban. They were immediately imprisoned and had their passports seized. In 2007, Wajeha al-Huwaider, a women’s rights activist and writer, received a great deal of international media attention when she posted a video of herself on YouTube, driving on the streets of Saudi Arabia. In 2011, a group of Saudi women created a Facebook campaign titled “Women2Drive,” advocating for the repeal of the ban.

Countless efforts were made throughout social media to end the ban, yet efforts seemed to have failed until September of 2017, when the announcement that the king signed a royal decree to lift the ban against women driving in June of 2018. This was a monumental moment for the Women2Drive campaign and women around the world, as it implies conditions are improving for women in Saudi Arabia.

Despite this hope, many believe that the decree is not as humanitarian as it is presented to be. Saudi’s economy is heavily dependent on oil and the dramatic drop in oil prices in 2016 depleted the country’s cash reserves and drove the ruling family to quickly create a financial plan to rescue the kingdom’s economic and political instability.

Led by Crown Prince, Muhammad bun Salman, Vision 2030 was announced, which calls for social and economic reform and a push for modernization. As a part of the plan, the country is trying to diversify its economy by attracting outside investment. However, Saudi’s reputation for its repressive culture bars such efforts. Allowing women to drive is likely to improve the country’s international reputation, which could garner substantial financial benefits from abroad.

Although the lift of the driving ban is a major footprint in human rights, women are still faced with oppressive policies, such as a forced male guardianship. Under the male guardianship system, all women are required to have a male guardian, such as a father, brother, husband, or son, who make critical decisions on women’s behalf and are required to accompany women while traveling. After the lifted driving ban, there has been strenuous insistence that the kingdom lift the male guardian requirement as well. However, there is no official talk of repeal.

The fact that such discriminatory policies continue to exist within Saudi contradicts lifting the driving ban. Although it is a huge step forward for women’s rights and symbolizes a beacon of hope for women, it should be taken with a grain of salt, as it’s clear that the kingdom has a long way to go before women can be regarded as completely free.

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