Saudi Arabia granted women the right to drive one year ago, a historic move that cracked open a window to new freedoms for women who have long lived under repressive laws. The measure was enacted by the country’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who also eased other restrictions on women, leading some to hail him as a feminist reformer.
The lifting of the ban has improved life for some Saudi women so they can get themselves to work or even take a job that involves lots of driving — while others say they are ambivalent about it or would rather women stay off the roads. The change has also come at great cost for activists who began fighting for this cause back in the 1990s.
Until last summer, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world where women weren’t allowed to drive, a policy that had been in place since 1957. The ban’s origins are murky, but the country follows Wahhabism, a strict form of Sunni Islam, which, among other things, forbids the sexes to mix. Saudi clerics argued that allowing women to drive would lead to promiscuity.
But in September 2017, Saudi Arabia’s ruler, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, issued a decree announcing that the nation’s women could drive starting on June 24, 2018. This was an extraordinary moment for women in the kingdom. Many had long fought for that right.
Some analysts view this change as a direct result of the crown prince’s vision to revamp the economy. In 2016, only 1 in 5 Saudis employed in the kingdom were women — extremely low compared to other parts of the world.
The ban has been widely condemned as a major barrier against women’s empowerment in the kingdom and a symbol of oppression. Some rights organizations hoped the ban’s removal would lead to more action on gender equality in Saudi Arabia.
But last May, in the lead-up to the lifting of the ban, more than a dozen female activists who had pushed for the right to drive were rounded up and put in jail. At least nine of them remain in prison. Families of the activists say they have been tortured and put in solitary confinement for long periods. No formal charges have been brought against the women, only a series of allegations that accused them of having been involved in a foreign plot against the government.
The World reached out to one activist’s family, who declined to comment at this time.
“It’s quite ironic that these arrests happened one month before the driving ban was lifted because these women are not only human rights defenders but [they] were the leading campaigners in the campaign for the right to drive,” Ahmed said. “It sends the message that reform and critique will only come from the government.”
The World tried contacting Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, but his office declined to comment. During his recent visit to Washington, DC, he publicly said the detained women’s rights activists will be put on trial and that their case is about “national security, not activism.“
Historically, Saudi women relied on male relatives to get from place to place or hiring chauffeurs. Public transport was not an option for many since it remains underdeveloped.
In 2017, Saudi media reported that families spent as much as $540 million each month on drivers.
While women can drive, they still have to follow guardianship rules that require them to get the permission of a male relative for tasks such as travel, marriage and some health procedures.
“The idea of women equality has to be mainstream, not limited to driving,” Sharia Walker. “If we want to see the real change it has to continue. This is the first step in the right direction.”
Additionally, Saudi women drivers are still few and far between. According to Saudi media, more than 40,000 driver licenses have been issued to women since last June, while around 10 million adult women live in the country. The driving age is 18.
Some Saudi women still have plenty of questions: “There was a decree that women are allowed to drive and that was it. From my experience, I haven’t seen any platform where people can engage and discuss what to expect, what are the fears, does it make sense?”
Many women didn’t know what to expect on the roads in Saudi Arabia, which are known for congestion and a high number of deadly accidents.
Meanwhile, some Saudi women say they are ambivalent about women driving.
It looks like it may be a slow process because there are so many hearts and minds to change of a well-entrenched national behavior. But young people now devour the internet and anything foreign. Or anything different or progressive.
The old school of thought is going to disappear a lot quicker than the hardliners think.
Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy but quick ride.