On June 25th, Saudi women finally took the wheel, ending the only ban on women’s ability to drive in the world. The moment was celebrated across major cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah, as women were finally given the right to drive without fearing the consequences of breaking the law. The government indicated that they intend to issue over one hundred licenses by Sunday, but thousands are still waiting to be granted their permits and no number has yet to be published about the number of women who received their licenses on time, according to The New York Times. The Washington Post indicated that about 30 women in Jeddah specifically were granted licenses as of now. This historic victory for women, however, came at a time when the government has intensified the crackdown on women activists, who struggled the most to achieve this moment.
The ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia has been open for debate since the 1990’s, according to the Washington Post. Many liberal Saudis, specifically women activists, have demanded the end of the ban as part of a much larger movement to further advance women’s rights in Saudi society. Conservatives, on the other hand, argued that allowing women to drive can be seen as opposition to the male guardianship system. A senior clerk recently spoke against the lifting of the driving ban, stating that women are unable to drive themselves because their brains “shrank” to a quarter the size of men’s brains while shopping. The clerk has been suspended from religious activity, but his remarks speak to the greater divide in Saudi society, especially as tensions have arisen between powerful religious clerks and the Crown’s reform efforts.
Many credit the Crowned Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, as the main motivator for ending the ban, as he has promised to reform Saudi Arabia economically and socially, according to Al Jazeera. The Guardian reported that the Prince said earlier this year that women and men were equal, a statement that opposes fundamentals of the male guardianship in Saudi law. The system, which gives males in the family power over their female relatives, limit Saudi women’s independence and ability to be actors in social development, according to The New York Times. For example, the law prohibits women from traveling alone or pursuing health care without permission from their fathers or husbands. When asked about the possibility of eradicating the male guardianship system in an interview by the New York Times, Bin Salman replied: “If I say yes to this question, that means I’m creating problems for the families that don’t want to give freedom for their daughters.” The statement is an obvious contradiction to the Crowned Prince’s alleged future plan called ‘Vision 2030’ and its alleged goals to enhance the development of Saudi Arabia in which “every member of the society — male or female — can enjoy a dignified life, both equal in rights and duties,” according to Al Arabiya (العربية), a Saudi Arabian news agency and one of the most popular news channel across the Middle East.
Some activists argue that Mohammad bin Salman’s reforms are purely for economic gains rather than for the advancement of Saudi women. The lifting of the ban comes at a time when the conservative country, led by the Prince, has intensified the crackdown against female activists and labeled them as “foreign traitors,” accusing them of “undermining the security and stability of the country,” according to the Washington Post. Eight of the 10 activists might face a trial in the “counter-terrorism” court, the BBC reports. The list of detainees includes Loujain Al-Hathloul, one of the most influential feminist Saudi activists, who was detained for the first time in 2014, with the charge of attempting to drive to Saudi Arabia from its neighboring country, United Arab Emirates, according to CNN. A human rights activist, Hiba Zayadin, also expressed concern over the arrest. She explained in an interview done with NowThis Her, that the prince wants to be “the sole reformer” meaning that he “gifts the citizens of Saudi Arabia reforms, they do not get to ask for them.” She also mentions that the lifting of the driving ban is being used a “public relations” move by the Saudi government, in order to attract and increase foreign investment, in a time of declining oil prices.
The lifting of the ban remains a victory for Saudi women because it opens up work opportunities and allows them to become a productive contributor to society, at least financially. Most importantly, however, is to not overestimate its effects. The minor reform is only truly beneficial if it is followed up by the release of female activists, who fought the most for this moment and to acknowledge that their activism is the main reason why women are able to celebrate this historical day.
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