Saudi Arabia will finally allow women to drive
But bigger changes are needed in the ultraconservative kingdom
THE roads in Riyadh are about to undergo a historic change. On September 26th Saudi Arabia announced the end of its decades-old ban on female drivers. It is the only country in the world to have such a stricture, which became a symbol of the ultraconservative kingdom’s repression of women.
For many Saudi women, the change is long overdue. Dozens of them got behind the wheel in Riyadh in 1990 to demand more rights. Some were prosecuted or lost their government jobs. The protests resumed in 2008 and peaked soon after the Arab uprisings in 2011. “We have lived to see this day after 27 years,” said Hessa al-Sheikh, one of the original activists.
They found a supporter in the youthful crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (or MBS, as he is called), who has an expansive plan to change Saudi society. One piece is loosening the kingdom’s social restrictions. Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, has been ruled according to a strict interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law. The legal code has also incorporated many tribal customs that were later cloaked in religion. And puritanism was pushed hard as a response to a double political shock in 1979: the siege of the Great Mosque in Mecca by Sunni extremists; and the Islamic revolution in Iran, which became ruled by radical Shia clerics.
MBS has tried to appeal to young people—70% of the population is under 30—who yearn for a less restrictive society. Those around him have long noted in private that photographs from the time of King Abdel Aziz, the kingdom’s founder, show that women used to ride camels alone. The religious police have lost much of their power. On September 23rd, national day, women were allowed into the main stadium in Riyadh for the first time. Public concerts, previously banned, started this year. There is talk of opening cinemas for the first time since the 1970s.
In an era of low oil prices, MBS also wants to liberalise the economy, cutting subsidies and a bloated public sector. Ending the ban on female drivers may help. More women attend Saudi universities than men, but they make up just 15% of the workforce. With little public transport, those who do work must hire drivers for their commutes. It is a heavy expense for lower-class families and deters some from getting jobs.
The decision to allow driving is not without its critics. Hours after it was announced, one of the most popular hashtags on Twitter in Saudi Arabia was “the women of my house will not drive”. In a patriarchal society, some families may indeed forbid their daughters from doing so. Though data are scarce, a study in 2014 by the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce found that Saudis were split on the issue. Clerics have inveighed against the idea for years, often in ludicrous terms. One said in September (before the announcement) that women were not smart enough to drive, because their brains shrink while shopping. Another said that driving would damage their ovaries.
Yet the official decree claimed that a majority of senior Islamic scholars supported the change, and a former head of the religious police tweeted his endorsement. This is hardly surprising. The regular police have recently arrested dozens of public figures who had expressed even mild opposition to the crown prince’s agenda. Among them was Salman al-Ouda, a popular Islamic scholar. By Saudi standards, he is not an arch-conservative; in fact, he has said that Islamic law does not forbid women from driving (as indeed it does not). But his arrest sent a message to other would-be clerical critics.
The announcement is a public-relations coup for the kingdom, which has come under criticism in the West for its harsh brand of Islam, its ruinous war in Yemen and its isolation of neighbouring Qatar. The move was announced on Saudi state television—and, simultaneously, at an event in Washington. Women, though, will have to wait until June before they become eligible for driving licences. The delay buys time to work out tricky issues. Because of strict rules on segregation of the sexes, for example, the interior ministry will need to establish new driving schools and hire a staff of female instructors.
Important as it is, the driving ban is not the only restriction on Saudi women—or even the one they complain about most. The wilaya (guardianship) system, which requires them to seek permission from male relatives in order to travel abroad or get married, is a bigger bone of contention. MBS has chipped away at this too, telling government officials to stop arbitrarily imposing restrictions on women. But much of the system remains on the books.
Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to America, said women would not need the approval of a male guardian to obtain a driving licence and that they would be allowed to drive alone. That is an encouraging step, but bigger changes are needed. Manal al-Sharif, an activist who was jailed in 2011 for challenging the driving ban, said she was in tears at the news—and that getting rid of the guardianship system was her next goal.
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