Veils and wheels

March 29, 2014, a woman drives a car in Riyadh, Saudi Ara­bia, as part of a cam­paign to defy a ban on women driv­ing. The King­dom au­thor­i­ties an­nounced that women will be al­lowed to drive next sum­mer. Saudi Ara­bia to al­low women to drive for 1st time next y

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - Weekend - BY AB­DUL­LAH AL-SHIHRI AND AYA BATRAWY Photo: AP

OMEN will be al­lowed to drive for the first time next sum­mer in Saudi Ara­bia, the ul­tra-con­ser­va­tive king­dom an­nounced, mark­ing a sig­nif­i­cant ex­pan­sion of women’s rights in the only coun­try that barred them from get­ting be­hind the wheel.

While women in other Mus­lim coun­tries drove freely, the king­dom’s blan­ket ban at­tracted neg­a­tive pub­lic­ity for years. Nei­ther Is­lamic law nor Saudi traf­fic law ex­plic­itly pro­hib­ited women from driv­ing, but they were not is­sued li­censes and were de­tained if they at­tempted to drive.

Prince Khaled bin Sal­man, Saudi Ara­bia’s am­bas­sador to Washington and the king’s son, said Tues­day that let­ting women drive is a “huge step for­ward” and that “so­ci­ety is ready.”

“This is the right time to do the right thing,” he told re­porters in the US Women will be al­lowed to ob­tain li­censes without the per­mis­sion of a male rel­a­tive.

The an­nounce­ment came in the form of a royal de­cree that was re­ported late Tues­day by the state-run Saudi Press Agency and state TV.

“I am re­ally ex­cited. This is a good step for­ward for women’s rights,” said Az­iza Youssef, a pro­fes­sor at King Saud Univer­sity and one of Saudi Ara­bia’s most vo­cal women’s rights ac­tivists. Speak­ing to The As­so­ci­ated Press from Riyadh, she said women were “happy” but also that the change was “the first step in a lot of rights we are wait­ing for.”

Saudi his­tory of­fers many ex­am­ples of women be­ing pun­ished sim­ply for op­er­at­ing a ve­hi­cle.

In 1990, 50 women were ar­rested for driv­ing and lost their pass­ports and their jobs. More than 20 years later, a woman was sen­tenced in 2011 to 10 lashes for driv­ing, though the late King Ab­dul­lah over­turned the sen­tence.

As re­cently as late 2014, two Saudi women were de­tained for more than two months for de­fy­ing the ban on driv­ing when one of them at­tempted to cross the Saudi border with a li­cense from neigh­bor­ing United Arab Emi­rates in an act of de­fi­ance.

Youssef took part in nu­mer­ous driv­ing cam­paigns, in­clud­ing a widely pub­li­cised ef­fort in 2013 when dozens of women across the king­dom up­loaded videos to Youtube of them­selves driv­ing in Saudi Ara­bia.

Some videos showed fam­i­lies and male driv­ers giv­ing women a “thumbs-ups,” sug­gest­ing many were ready for the change.

The de­cree in­di­cated that women will not be al­lowed to drive im­me­di­ately. A com­mit­tee will be formed to look into how to im­ple­ment the new or­der, which is slated to take ef­fect in June 2018.

For years, the king­dom has in­cre­men­tally granted women more rights and vis­i­bil­ity, in­clud­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Olympic Games in Lon­don and Rio, po­si­tions on the coun­try’s top con­sul­ta­tive coun­cil and the right to run and vote in lo­cal elec­tions in 2015.

De­spite th­ese open­ings, Saudi women re­main largely sub­ject to the whims of men due to guardian­ship laws, which bar them from ob­tain­ing a pass­port, trav­el­ing abroad or mar­ry­ing without the con­sent of a male rel­a­tive. Women who at­tempt to flee abu­sive fam­i­lies have also faced im­pris­on­ment or been forced into shel­ters.

King Sal­man and his young son and heir, Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, tested the wa­ters over the week­end by al­low­ing women into the coun­try’s main sta­dium in Riyadh for an­nual cel­e­bra­tions of the na­tion’s found­ing. The sta­dium had pre­vi­ously been re­served for all-male crowds to watch sport­ing events.

Women and men also flooded a main street in the cap­i­tal, bop­ping their heads to pop mu­sic as green lights flick­ered over­head in the color of the flag. The scene was shock­ing for a city in which gen­der seg­re­ga­tion is strictly en­forced and where women are sel­dom seen walk­ing the streets, much less mix­ing in close quar­ters with males.

The 32-year-old crown prince has also opened the coun­try to more en­ter­tain­ment, al­low­ing mu­si­cal con­certs and even a Comic­con event as part of a wide-rang­ing push to re­form the econ­omy and so­ci­ety. This year, the gov­ern­ment an­nounced that for the first time girls in pub­lic schools would be al­lowed to play sports and have ac­cess to phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion.

The de­cree stated that the ma­jor­ity of Mus­lim schol­ars on the coun­try’s high­est cler­i­cal coun­cil agreed that Is­lam al­lows women the right to drive.

How­ever, many of those same ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive cler­ics, who wield power and in­flu­ence in the ju­di­ciary and ed­u­ca­tion sec­tors, have also spo­ken out in the past against women driv­ing, play­ing sports or en­ter­ing the work­force. They ar­gue such acts cor­rupt so­ci­ety and lead to sin.

One Saudi cleric even stated in 2013 that driv­ing could af­fect a woman’s ovaries and hurt her fer­til­ity. That same year, around 150 cler­ics and re­li­gious schol­ars held a rare protest out­side the Saudi king’s palace against ef­forts by women seek­ing the right to drive.

Women in Saudi Ara­bia have long had to rely on male rel­a­tives to get to work or run er­rands, com­pli­cat­ing gov­ern­ment ef­forts to boost house­hold in­comes as lower oil prices force aus­ter­ity mea­sures. The more af­flu­ent have male driv­ers. In ma­jor ci­ties, women can ac­cess ride-hail­ing apps such as Uber and Ca­reem.

To cel­e­brate Tues­day’s de­cree, sev­eral Saudi women posted images on so­cial me­dia delet­ing their ride shar­ing apps.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump com­mended the or­der in a White House press of­fice state­ment that called the change “a pos­i­tive step to­ward pro­mot­ing the rights and op­por­tu­ni­ties of women in Saudi Ara­bia.”

US State Depart­ment spokes­woman Heather Nauert called the move “a great step in the right di­rec­tion.” She did not com­ment on whether Saudi Ara­bia still needs to do more to en­sure full rights for its fe­male cit­i­zens.

An­to­nio Guter­res, the sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the United Na­tions, also wel­comed the Saudi de­ci­sion, writ­ing on Twit­ter that it rep­re­sented “an im­por­tant step in the right di­rec­tion.”

Lori Boghardt, a Gulf spe­cial­ist at the Washington In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy, said the change is yet an­other sign that the crown prince in­tends on adopt­ing so­cial re­forms that will trans­form the king­dom.

“To­day it’s es­pe­cially clear that this in­cludes moves that’ve long been thought of by Saudis as po­lit­i­cally risky,” she said.

– As­so­ci­ated Press

“An im­por­tant step in the right di­rec­tion” An­to­nio Guter­res Sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the United Na­tions

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