Starting in June, Saudi women will be allowed to drive cars without permission from a male guardian. Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world that forbade women to drive.
One taboo falls, many others remain. But the ban on driving had become for Saudi women’s rights activists the symbol of their discrimination. “It’s not about driving, it’s about living,” says Manal al-Sharif, who helped lead the charge. She had gotten behind the wheel in defiance of the bans, despite threats of imprisonment — where others did end up — and then posted a video of herself on social media, which quickly became viral. That was the first victory. Some activists, such as the journalist Wajeha Al Huwaider, have paid with their jobs.
The ability to drive comes after the right to vote and to be run for office — but without showing their face and without the right to contact male voters.
Apartheid continues. And, as al-Sharif has said, the next campaign will be to abolish the law that requires women to have a “guardian.”
Women are still very limited in their movements and to work — in the fields they have been granted. They must have permission of the guardian (a husband, father or brother) who has to accompany her in travel (Saudi women have no documents), must authorize her to vote, etc. Saudi women cannot rent a house or open a bank account, not to mention the inheritance and the protection of their children.
The announcement of the royal decree signed by King Salman, which will allow women to drive, was made simultaneously by state television and the exuberant Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Khalid to Salman.
Obviously, this is an image operation that is likely to be in response to all the criticisms raised in April by the entry of Saudi Arabia into the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, a body designed to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment.
The move is also included in the “Vision 2030” reform plan, launched two years ago, which aims to diversify the economy of the country, now dependent on oil, with investments in various sectors, including the military. The long horizon will especially favor the successor and inspiration of King Salman, his ambitious and powerful 32-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, named heir after being extradited from the succession of Muhammad bin Nayef in 2015.
After being in the economic council, he became the youngest defense minister in the world. Given Saudi Arabia’s devotion to its military, that is no small thing.
There is another reason that may have determined the decision to let women drive: economics.
The low price of oil has had repercussions on the Saudi economy and requiring drivers to accommodate women’s every move, and for children to go to school, in a country where there is no public transport, has become a big problem. Women who work complain about spending much of their salary on a private driver.
Although there was no law prohibiting women to drive, Wahhabis used their fatwa to preserve the impediment, with absurd motives. The latest, a week ago, came from Sheikh Saad al Hajri: Women cannot drive because they only have a quarter of a brain. Others in the past had argued that a woman at the wheel was a danger to her family — and could also ruin her ovaries. Another reason raised was that if a woman had a license with her photograph, a police officer stopping her could see her face, now covered by a full veil, the niqab.
This latter issue, it seems, is one of the problems delaying the decree from entering into force: Policemen will have to be trained to deal with women, with whom they’ve so far never had to interact. Meanwhile, a committee has been created, which within 30 days must give recommendations for how to implement the decree by June 24.
Of course, this time will also have to be used to convince the religious extremists who are already spreading propaganda to render the law inapplicable. But the rulers have already guaranteed that women will be allowed to drive, “in accord with sharia.”
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