Veil Lifted: Female Empowerment And The Right To Drive In Saudi Arabia

June 28th of 2018, marked a significant and necessary shift in the empowerment of Saudi Arabian women, as by the way of royal decree the prohibition against female drivers was annulled. Although appearing to be a win against gender based discrimination in Saudi Arabia, it is merely the spawn of surface impression, if anything this move is connotative of the ultimate catch-22 for the status of peace and security in Saudi Arabia. The move came in light of prolonged campaigning vying for such a radical change, which in its initial stages was subject to harsh criticism from the political bureau. Of most extreme, was the case of Shaima Jastania in 2011, who was punished by way of capital punishment for the mundane act of driving. Thankfully this sentence was quashed. Noting this matter demonstrates the importance of the shift for women’s personal and political empowerment girth by the move. Further, high level officials warned, in 2013, that those who seek to rebel against and defy the ban will be punished accordingly. Indeed, Al-Khamri’s opinion piece published on Alijazeera online enunciates the absoluteness of patriarchal power which enables the monarchy to promulgate and reject female empowerment at their own whim.

Messages of support and encouragement have tethered the banter of high level officials both internationally and domestically. In particular, Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal has heralded this move to be ‘a great achievement.’ This positive sentiment has been internationally echoed by President Trump and the White House which regarded the move to be monumental towards the ‘implementation of Saudi Vision 2030.’ In opposition, whilst the voices of critics remain operational, it appears that high-level officials have refrained from engaging with grassroots disparagement informed by stigma and traditional paternalistic attitudes.

Whilst I stop from disparaging the significance of the ban overturn, it would also prove disingenuous not to account for the economic concerns driving this shift, which appears to have trumped concerns of gender empowerment. According to Al-Khamri gender empowerment is a strong façade, as economic progress is the real motive. Khamri argues that the decision is predominately informed by the goal of securing economic prosperity by enabling and increasing female participation in the private sector workforce up to 30 % by the 2030. This forces one to question whether the uplifting of the ban is indeed permanent, should the economic climate turn in the future.

The disparity between the dominant patriarchy and the subjugated female status quo is evident from the treatment of high profile activists who are enduring incarceration for challenging the righteousness of the prior ban. Such is deeply disconcerting as it highlights the instability of the region, which is not premised upon the rule of law, but the hegemony of the autocratic machinery which seeks to curtail individual freedom. The incarceration of high profile activists such as Loujain al-Hathloal demonstrates the gravity of the attack upon freedom of political communication and speech. Without which individual freedom, liberty. and therein security of living with dignity is strongly compromised.

The Saudi Arabian situation ought to force the greater international community to acknowledge that women’s rights as well as traditionally constitutionally protected rights such as freedom of political communication face undue control and opposition. Unfortunately, decades of meaningful activism has been overshadowed by media hype encompassing the overturning of the ban. It is important to reiterate that the move was informed by the nationalistic agenda of economic growth, and not gender parity. As long as materialistic concerns trump human dignity, peace and security of the region will lack absolute stability.

Nat Kumar