BY VICTORIA WANG '20
The government of Saudi Arabia lifted its driving ban on women after a royal decree on Tuesday, Sept. 27. The act was first publicized on Sept. 26 at the United Nations by Saudi Arabia’s permanent representative, and it was soon followed by an official announcement from the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman onthe Saudi Foreign Ministry official Twitter account. The decree becomes effective on June 24, 2018.
Claiming that it was “the right decision at the right time” Bin Salman, son of King Abdulaziz Al Saud, who made the decree, said in the press conference that the question of whether women should drive is “not religious nor a cultural issue,” but he “understands there might be ‘social issues,’ as not everyone in Saudi Arabia supports the changes.”
While the decree will disappoint a number of conservative Saudi Arabian social and religious elites, it is a big step for feminist campaigns in the country, such as the Women2Drive campaign, which has focused on this particular issue for years. According to theBBC, Manal al-Sharif, who started the campaign in 2011 and was once imprisoned for driving in public, celebrated the change by posting a photo of herself behind the wheel of a car.
Even once this decree is enacted next June, many activities available to women in Western cultures will still be out of reach for Saudi Arabian women. Although the driving prohibition will be lifted, women are still required to obtain permission from men for activities like applying for passports, opening bank accounts and getting cosmetic surgery.
International reactions to this decree are largely positive. The U.S. State Department called it “a great step in the right direction.” Amnesty International also offered its congratulations to the women who fought for the change. Human Rights Watch Director Kenneth Roth tweeted that Saudi Arabia has a long way to go before women and men are treated equally. “Saudi Arabia finally lets women drive,” he wrote. “Now revoke guardianship laws and stop treating women like children.”
Prior to this act, Saudi Arabia was the only state in the world that banned women from operating vehicles. Women who drive in public would be punishable by fines or jailtime. This no driving law was affiliated with a strict brand of Islamic law called “Wahhabism,” which restricted women’s activities greatly, by requiring that men and women be kept separate, and that every woman must also have a designated male guardian, according to CNN.
The decree is also expected to also have impact on the country’s economy. For decades, Saudi families had allocated large portions of their income to hire chauffeurs that are usually imported from south and south-east Asia and are expected to house them, feed them and insure them. The population of immigrant chauffeurs in Saudi Arabia is 1.4 million. Their average salary is the equivalent of $1,000 a month, as reported by the BBC. Many suspect that the decree, when enacted, will have a large impact on the economy of this occupation.
Phoebe Cullen ’18, a Middle Eastern studies major, said that this act “is great symbolically, but in reality it may only be lip service to equality.” She explained that the state’s original ban on driving used Islamic religious influence as well as various safety claims to justify its existence. “Many of the laws in Saudi Arabia are claimed to be built ‘to keep women safe,” said Cullen. However, she believes that Saudi laws like this are more driven by the decade-long political power dynamics rather than the religion itself, or claims of safety.
Cullen believes that the social backlash women will face needs to be considered as well: “Will driving women be shamed, met with hostility,” she said, “or will they feel safe enough to actually drive themselves?”