Saudi women not in driv­ing seat yet

A re­stric­tion on women driv­ers is be­ing loos­ened, but Saudi women still have a long road to travel

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Michael Jansen

King Salman’s de­cree lift­ing the re­stric­tion on women driv­ers in Saudi Ara­bia has been cel­e­brated as a break­through in a cam­paign against men’s con­trols over women in the coun­try. Women will be able to get a driv­ing li­cence with­out a male rel­a­tive’s per­mis­sion and to drive with­out a male rel­a­tive in the car.

But the change marks only a mi­nor re­lax­ation of the Saudi sys­tem of “guardian­ship” that re­quires women to se­cure per­mis­sion from fa­thers, broth­ers, hus­bands or sons to ob­tain pass­ports, open bank ac­counts, take jobs, travel abroad, marry and seek med­i­cal treat­ment. Th­ese le­gal and cul­tural re­stric­tions re­main firmly in place de­spite con­stant chal­lenge from some Saudi women and hu­man-rights or­gan­i­sa­tions.

The de­cree stip­u­lated that the shift in pol­icy must ad­here to the stan­dards of sharia, or Mus­lim canon law, but it didn’t spec­ify th­ese. A min­is­te­rial com­mit­tee is to ad­vise on im­ple­men­ta­tion within 30 days, and the or­der is to be in force by June 2018.

Al­though the change has been ap­proved by the gov­ern­ment- ap­pointed Coun­cil of Se­nior Schol­ars, the coun­try’s high­est re­li­gious author­ity, sharia could still be used to im­pose re­stric­tions, par­tic­u­larly as the de­lay in en­force­ment could prompt ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive cler­ics, of­fi­cials and cit­i­zens to de­mand lim­i­ta­tions on who should be al­lowed be­hind the wheel, as well as when and where they might drive.

Women have long pressed for the lift­ing of the ban, as they have to rely on male rel­a­tives or hire driv­ers to take them any­where. The re­li­gious es­tab­lish­ment has ar­gued that al­low­ing women to drive would en­cour­age promis­cu­ity and put women alone in cars at risk of at­tack and rape. Women in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties have, with­out the ben­e­fit of li­cences, al­ways driven trac­tors and farm ve­hi­cles.

As Saudi Ara­bia is the only coun­try to pro­hibit women from driv­ing, the mea­sure is por­trayed as a sig­nif­i­cant step for­ward. But driv­ing can open only a chink in the wall that sur­rounds women and pre­vents so­cial in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the sexes. An­other nar­row crack ap­peared last week when women were per­mit­ted to en­ter a se­cluded fam­ily sec­tion of a sport sta­dium with their spouses on Saudi Na­tional Day.

Al­though mix­ing with un­re­lated men is strictly lim­ited, women have made po­lit­i­cal, sport­ing and em­ploy­ment gains in re­cent years. In 2011 they were granted the right to vote and stand in lo­cal elec­tions, which took place in 2015. Women com­peted in the 2012 Olympic Games, and in 2013 the late King Abdullah ap­pointed 30 women to the Shura, or ad­vi­sory assem­bly.

This week, for the first time, a woman be­came a deputy mayor: Iman Bint Abdullah al- Ghamdi was put in charge of women’s is­sues and in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy in a town in the east­ern re­gion.

Un­der Crown Prince Muham­mad bin Salman’s Vi­sion 30 plan for the eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion of the oil-de­pen­dent king­dom, the per­cent­age of women in the work­force is meant to in­crease from 16 to 28 per cent by 2020. Most of th­ese will be in the small- busi­ness sec­tor and will work at home, where they will not re­quire chap­er­ones or ve­hi­cles.

Women, who ac­count for more than half of univer­sity grad­u­ates, are al­ready em­ployed as fe­male ed­u­ca­tors, lawyers and as­sis­tants in shops sell­ing to women, fac­to­ries em­ploy­ing women and women-only op­er­a­tions in the hos­pi­tal­ity sec­tor.

In neigh­bour­ing Gulf emi­rates women play high-pro­file roles in their so­ci­eties. Sheikha Lubna al- Qasimi of the United Arab Emi­rates has held three min­is­te­rial posts. On a Forbes list of 100 most in­flu­en­tial Arab busi­ness­women, 18 are from the UAE, where women drive, cir­cu­late freely and are em­ployed in the public and pri­vate sec­tors.

At a time when the Saudi king­dom is seen as re­ac­tionary and re­pres­sive, open­ing up op­por­tu­ni­ties for women is re­garded as a way to im­press and si­lence crit­ics. Ac­cord­ing to one Saudi aca­demic, the planned re­lax­ation on driv­ing is part of a public-re­la­tions ef­fort to di­vert in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion from the king­dom’s dis­as­trous re­gional poli­cies.

Prof Madawi al- Rashid of the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics told the BBC that “the Saudi king needs women at the mo­ment. He needs the pub­lic­ity” pro­vided by an end to the ban “given that his re­gional poli­cies have ut­terly failed in Syria, Ye­men and Qatar”.

The re­li­gious es­tab­lish­ment has ar­gued that al­low­ing women to drive would en­cour­age promis­cu­ity

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