Women’s Rights Movement In Saudi Arabia: Why The Freedom To Drive Is Only The Beginning


One of the most widely debated topics within the modern Feminist platform has been the women’s rights violations of Saudi Arabia, with a particular emphasis on women’s right to drive. The specific event which drew attention to this topic was a YouTube video posted in 2011. Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif decided to defy the constructs of the Kingdom by recording herself driving a car. When the video went viral, Al-Sharif was eventually arrested. Feminists in the West caught onto the story and did not let go; rather, they rallied the media and made catchy hashtags. They said a woman’s right to drive is essential for her autonomy. Five years later, another viral video brought a revival of this attention, which portrayed three Saudi women driving motorcycles and bumper cars and singing about a world without men. Feminists were outraged that women still needed a male guardian to drive them around.

In September 2017, King Salman of Saudi Arabia declared that women will be allowed to drive starting June 2018. After the abundance of backlash from the media and feminist movements within the Kingdom, Salman did what he needed to do to appease them. However, this is only the beginning of a much larger battle that Saudi women are fighting today. Women’s rights violations are still rampant throughout the Kingdom. Violations can be found in concrete forms, like legal barriers, and social inequalities. Additionally, many Saudi women suffer from the violations that the royal family imposes on religious minorities, LGBTQ members, and political dissidents.

The most astonishing violations of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia take the form of legal disadvantages. Saudi law has created an oppressive system where adult women are treated as minors. For instance, adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian (husband, father, brother, etc.) to travel abroad, obtain a passport, marry, or be discharged from prison. This treatment of women as less than men is quantified in the treatment of testimony. Under Saudi law, a woman’s testimony only has half the worth of a man’s. Laws also hold women back from becoming financially independent. Although there are now some jobs in the Kingdom that women can do without permission, women are banned from having their own bank accounts to control their finances. Divorce laws solidify a Saudi woman’s necessity to stay in a marriage, no matter how unhealthy or abusive. In cases of divorce, women can only maintain custody of their sons until age seven and daughters until age nine, according to Independent. And if none of this convinces a woman she needs a man to survive, life-changing operations and procedures require male permission. So Saudi women literally need permission to live.

Aside from the legal disadvantages women face in Saudi Arabia, cultural norms often dictate what a woman can or cannot do. While these things may not appear in Saudi law, the royal family will often use legal repercussions when women try to step outside of these boundaries. The most apparent example of this is dress regulation: all women must wear a long coat over their clothes called an abaya. Although the abaya is traditionally plain black, this has been relaxed in recent years. While this abaya norm is not a legal barrier, religious police enforce it as one. For example, when a woman named Khulood was depicted in a short skirt and crop top on Snapchat, she was arrested in July 2017, according to Human Rights Watch. Whether or not the dress code is oppressive is one of the most controversial subjects for Saudi feminists. Some feminists like Samar Badawi consider themselves feminists and still voluntarily don the abaya. Others choose to ditch the covering. Most find their own way to make feminist ideology applicable to their own interpretation of Islam.

On top of legal and social inequalities, many Saudi women suffer from the other oppressive qualities of the Kingdom. Religious minorities are the most widespread example of this phenomena. There is zero tolerance for public worship that is not in accordance with the Wahhabist tradition. According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia “systematically discriminates against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis, including in public education, the justice system, religious freedom, and employment.” In addition to religion, women may also be included in LGBTQ discrimination. In February of 2017, Saudi government arrested 35 Pakistani citizens, including some transgender women. One transgender woman died of a heart attack in detainment. Upon seeing her body, the family reported signs of torture. Police sanction people suspected of adultery, extramarital and homosexual sex, which ostracizes these women even more.

Most concerning of all, in my opinion, is the oppressive tactics used toward political dissidents. This is important because it is a scare tactic to prevent changing any of the former rights violations. The Kingdom is infamous for its arbitrary arrests of peaceful political dissidents and activists. Many of these activists, including feminists, receive long prison sentences and are not treated with due process. The aforementioned policy which holds a woman’s testimony at half the value of a man’s particularly disadvantages women in these scenarios. Saudi authorities are also known to not always inform suspects of what they are being charged with and to not allow access to supporting evidence even once the trial has begun! Many are also deprived of a right to defense. By silencing activists with prison time, King Salman exponentially decreases accountability for the numerous human rights violations he has allowed.

Despite the scope of the problem for Saudi women, some small carrots have been offered by the royal family in recent years, the most notable being the right to drive. Additionally, in April 2017, the king ordered that government agencies cannot deny women access government services without male consent unless existing regulation requires it. While this may only begin to shorten the gender gap in education and healthcare, it does not address any issues of international travel nor child custody. Three months later, the Education Ministry announced that Saudi girls’ schools will offer a physical education program for a girl, but it will comply with Islamic standards. As of 2016, women can vote but need a man to drive them if the polling centre is far. Regardless, voting in Saudi Arabia is scarce and often meaningless. While these policy changes may all be changes in the right direction, they only make a small dent in the larger problem.

If what has already been done is not enough, what else can the world do for the women of Saudi Arabia? Because this issue has been ingrained over time in the government, law, and culture, any nonviolent solution will also involve long-term strategies. The threefold strategy of oil independence, support of Saudi feminism, and change in rhetoric from major leaders could be effective in imposing change for Saudi women. The first part of this strategy, oil independence, is both ambitious and necessary. Scientists are making strides in alternative sources of energy which may allow for this to become a reality sooner than later. As the outlook for the oil industry becomes bleaker, the royal family has begun a fiscal strategy to diversify the economy away from oil and privatize some state-own industry. The more we move away from oil, the more Saudi Arabia is forced to move the economic power into the hands of the people. Once the people have economic leverage, the Kingdom has the choice to either become less oppressive or be overrun by the people. This works in the favour of all Saudis, but including women.

The second facet of this strategy is support of Saudi feminism. Although this tactic is much more tedious, women’s new right to drive is proof that it works. In order to make this tactic more productive, it should not be limited to a trending hashtag after a viral video. The world population should be better educated on the women’s rights violations so that it is constantly a topic of discussion. With proper education and marketing of the cause, Salman would undoubtedly feel the pressure. The last tactic is a change in rhetoric from elected officials. The President of the United States has cultivated a working relationship with the royal family. Donald Trump boasts cooperation in terms of economic trade and intelligence. However, Trump thus far has muted any criticism of Saudi women’s rights violations. His current working relationship with Salman gives him the perfect opportunity to leverage human rights improvements for economic benefits. This can only be done if the constituency and his party apply the right pressure for him to do so.

While the problems for women in Saudi Arabia far outweigh the solutions, it is most important that the outlook for these women is positive. New policies are currently trending in the direction of solving the issues, but are slow-paced and lacking. When the headlines were released that women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to drive, feminists rejoiced that their concern had been answered. However, the problems for women extend much deeper than the freedom to drive. Even if the laws are slowly changing, it will take even longer to eradicate the social gaps for women.

With time and proper strategy, it truly is possible to effect change in the lives of Saudi women. These women could be the most intelligent and productive workers the country has, and they would not even know it. A Saudi woman could innovate the newest technologies, find the cure for cancer, or even, ironically, discover the next alternative to oil. The opportunities are endless if Saudi women are just given the opportunity. Although driving might give Saudi women some opportunity, it is just the beginning.

Ashley Plotkin