At midnight on June 24th 2018, Saudi Arabia lifted its longtime ban that forbade women from driving, nine months after the announcement was first made by King Salman, and decades after the “Women to Drive” movement first began campaigning for change. Women took to the streets in the driver’s seat of cars for the first time, something many women across the world take for granted every day.
The ban was in line with other strict laws governing women in the country, all of which heavily restrict and limit women’s movements, actions, and freedoms. Many see Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a figurehead of the change, who announced in 2016 his Vision 2030 plan, which would expand Saudi Arabia’s public service sectors, in part by allowing more women into the workforce. While many women celebrated the end of the ban, for others, particularly those not wealthy enough to afford driving lessons (which are more expensive for women) or cars, the end of the ban changes little in their personal day-to-day lives.
Also concerning is the fact that many female activists who campaigned for an end to the ban in recent years were jailed. Some were released just before the ban was lifted, with instructions not to speak to the media or take credit for the end of the ban, but Amnesty International has stated that eight of them remain imprisoned.
Saudi Arabia has some of the most restrictive laws and cultural practices surrounding women; particularly their unofficial guardianship laws, which forbid women from carrying out a range activities unless they are given permission by their male guardian; typically their father, brother, uncle, husband, or son. While for some this way of life is something they fully accept, others argue this treatment of women is demeaning and allows for men to abuse their power with little to no repercussions.
While lifting the driving ban against women is a major accomplishment for Saudi Arabia, and a big step forwards for women’s rights in the country, significant change should involve more freedoms for women, that aren’t governed by their male relatives. However, change such as this is often entrenched in culture and tradition far more than in any laws, and is for this reason often difficult to change. If there is to be significant change in the way women are treated in Saudi Arabia, it will only come from small changes one at a time, that can slowly help to change the ways in which women and their role in society are viewed.
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