Just weeks before the official implementation of the freedom of rights for women to drive in Saudi Arabia was set to be put into effect, seven women’s rights advocates were arrested by Saudi authorities, according to Human Rights Watch. The detainees include women who drove their cars in public to challenge the government’s driving ban and men who defended the right to drive for women.
In September 2017, the Saudi government officially announced that it was going to lift the ban on women driving starting June 2018, until which time Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prevents women from driving. The decision to ease the restriction on women driving in the ultraconservative country, however, highlights only its hope for a better international reputation as well as women’s participation in the workplace, instead of its determination in pursuing gender equality. The driving force behind the decision might be the low oil prices that have been resulting in more and more limited government jobs, forcing the government to push both men and women into private sector employment. Whatever the driving force is, the removal of the ban on women driving is a by-product of decisions made for development by the male-ruled system, instead of a determination for abolishing the unequal status quo between male and female in Saudi Arabia.
Nevertheless, when the agreement on women driving was officially announced, it was considered a huge success in the pursuit of women’s rights and gender equality, receiving international celebration. And yet, several campaigners had been contacted by the government not to talk about the issue in public. They have assumed that the government does not want them to take credit for the policy change as the result of social movements, according to an article by Ben Hubbard, published in the New York Times.
Thus, it was not surprising when the prominent women’s rights activists were arrested as they tried to challenge government authorities. The official reason behind the arrests remains unknown, as the Saudi leaders refused to respond, but the message is clear: the country is not ready for emancipation from its longstanding social stricture of the gender norms and the gender segregation culture.
But why did the Saudi government place a ban on women driving in particular? It was not until the 1990s that the ban on women driving became an official policy. Many government officials and male citizens claim that the right of women to drive on public roads increases the chances for women to expose themselves to the public and non-related males. Which might lead to the collapse of the established social order under the male guardianship system and thus create social chaos.
Before the announcement, Saudi women have had very limited means for movement. They are usually driven around by family members, personal drivers, or private transportation, which are usually expensive. The heavy reliance on others means that they have to spend most of their income on transportation.
According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system considers its women as legal minors who can not make key decisions for themselves. They have to rely on their male guardians’ approval on decisions to work, travel, get married, receive higher education, or undergo certain medical procedures. The male guardians can be fathers, husbands, brothers, or sons. Saudi women are also highly discouraged to interact with non-related males. In this respect, many women’s rights activists have repeatedly called on the abolishment of the male guardianship system, but have not yet made significant progress.
The law might be a huge barrier to women’s freedom of movement, but it’s ultimately the culture rather than the law that prevents women from driving. The longstanding male guardianship culture as a social barrier has significantly violated women’s basic human rights, including but not limited to freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of movements, and so on; which have further restricted women’s economic potential and empowerment.
To effectively implement the freedom for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, in my opinion, it should start from abolishing the male guardianship system. Simply removing the legal barriers for women to drive is not enough to change the status quo, as many other social barriers are deeply rooted among both Saudi men and women. The nation will not be truly ready for the emancipation without dismantling any of these social barriers.
Education is frequently the first and most fundamental step for progress on the road towards freedom. Education provides the possibility for Saudi men and women to realize the existence, importance and prevalence of gender inequality. In a nation ruled by patriarchal customs, any social change will only be cosmetic and the injustice and verbal or physical abuse against women will never diminish until the male guardianship system is dismantled.
]Under the current system, women have very limited freedom of mobility. When women have the right to hold steering wheels, they will have control over when and where they want to go. The freedom for women to drive is the freedom for women to choose their destination, and thus choose their destiny. Women are not the attachment of men, they are independent individuals, they are human beings that should have enjoyed the same rights as any other. They should be their own guardian and should have the right to make decisions for themselves.
The detention of women’s rights activists reveals that even though the government has officially announced the ban lifting, they are not ready for it. The purpose of lifting the ban is to improve international reputation rather than improving women’s status and pursuing gender equality.
The campaign for pursuing gender equality in Saudi Arabia will never end until the Saudi government truly realizes what women’s rights activists are fighting for, and what the male guardianship system has inflicted on their female citizens.