Saudi Arabia moves further towards equality, for the wrong reasons

Last week women in Saudi Arabia were legally allowed to drive themselves for the first time in the country’s history. Before this change Saudi was the only country in the world where driving alone was forbidden for women.

Despite not being officially written into law, women previously faced structural barriers that prevented them from driving. They were never issued with licenses and the ban was underpinned by religious authorities that decreed women driving to be haram (forbidden). Despite Islam being a pioneer for gender equality in many ways, the particular interpretation of religious clerics in Saudi Arabia claimed that women’s lack of intellect meant they shouldn’t drive, while others suggested that driving affects the ovaries.

The welcome change has been almost three decades in waiting and it has been a testing and dangerous 28 years for the women activists involved. In the Saudi capital of Riyadh, in November 1990, 47 women took to the streets in their cars driving in convoy until being stopped by the police. This was the first public protest again the ban on driving. It resulted in all the women being arrested as well as them and their husbands being prohibited from travelling abroad for a year. Some of the women also lost their jobs, others received death threats, and even until now they are known as ‘the drivers’. One of the women, Aisha al Mana, believes earning this label was worth it,“because we raised the issue of the women in Saudi Arabia and the consciousness about it.” Finally, 28 years later, the consciousness of the whole country is being exposed to change.

However, the movement for women’s freedom to drive did not lay quiet for the last three decades; there have many instances of women being punished for driving illegally. The official Women2Drive campaign started in 2011 and despite numerous imprisonments activists did not waiver. After waiting so long the removal of the ban is clear victory for women in Saudi Arabia but the timing and motives behind this move should be questioned.

Unfortunately, the change has stemmed from economic priorities rather than a genuine move for equality. Saudi’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is responsible for revitalising Saudi Arabia’s economy, which has been gravely damaged by falling oil prices and a rising population. The prince announced Vision 2030 in September 2017, around when he announced the removal of the driving ban, his plan to transport Saudi Arabia into a post-oil economy. Included in these reforms was removing the driving ban with the long-term goal of increasing the number of women in the workforce from 22% to 30%.

Such a small number of women currently work because of cultural traditions and religious interpretations. The driving ban meant that women’s mobility was at the mercy of their male guardian and paying for a driver meant losing a substantial portion of their income, just to cover a basic freedom, making working unrealistic for many. In removing the driving ban as part of the social reforms linked to his economic plan the Prince admits the damage the ban has done to Saudi’s international reputation and its dissolution is an attempt to improve trade deals. So, the deal is a no brainer really when this change could add $90 billion to Saudi Arabia’s economic output by 2030, according to economists.

Many Saudi women are delighted with the change and that absolutely should not be forgotten or ignored, but removing the driving ban should be the beginning and not the solution to gender equality in Saudi Arabia. Over the past few years women have been gaining inches in the move towards equality, now being allowed to attend certain sporting events and cast their votes for the first time in 2015.  But the driving ban was part of the discourses surrounding gender differences (that women’s brains cannot process complex information), which fundamentally still remain throughout Saudi society. Male guardianship rules still remain a defining tenet of Saudi gender relations and the subjugation of women. Every women must have a male guardian – this could even be their own son – who can grant them the right to own a passport, travel or even leave prison. For many women eradicating these laws is the next step, with the campaign #IAmMyOwnGuardian having already begun.

Even though the Crown Prince kept to his word and removed the driving ban, his dedication to reform does not seem so steadfast. In the last week eight activists who had called for the ban were detained for human rights work, campaigning for the right to drive and the end to male guardianship. Their detention appears to be part of the Crown Prince’s move to silence dissenting voices. Amnesty International said of the arrests “Saudi Arabian authorities cannot continue to publicly state they are dedicated to reform, while treating women’s rights campaigners in this cruel way”.

Women being able to drive in Saudi Arabia should be celebrated and the photos of joyous women sitting behind their steering wheels and holding their legal licenses are wonderful to see. However, Saudi Arabia still has major steps to take in removing the engrained gender stereotypes, which govern so many aspects of life for Saudi women. This step is momentous, but the next steps need to also be born out of respect for womens’ human rights rather than in a bid to boost the economy and the productivity of workers. Allowing women to drive after such a long fight is a reminder that women are somebody’s without having to state their relation to a man, but they also need to be recognised as agentic individuals with the freedom of choice and human rights, not just another part of a workforce.

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