Saudi women al­lowed to drive

Royal de­cree over­turn­ing ban seen as turn­ing point in con­ser­va­tive king­dom

The Guardian Weekly - - International News - Martin Chulov Na­dia al-Faour

Saudi women have hailed a move by the con­ser­va­tive king­dom’s ruler to al­low them to drive as a land­mark mo­ment in a so­ci­ety where gen­der roles have long been rigidly de­mar­cated and strictly en­forced.

Women con­tacted by the Guardian re­sponded with ju­bi­la­tion to the le­gal change, which ac­tivists and se­nior Saudi of­fi­cials claim marks a wa­ter­shed in the coun­try.

“The mind­set has shifted,” said Sul­tana al-Saud, 26, from Riyadh. “We weren’t wait­ing for our fam­i­lies to ac­cept, we were wait­ing for some­thing larger to back us up, a back­bone, which is the gov­ern­ment.

“This is a huge step for women, it’s nice to see women be­hind the wheel – metaphor­i­cally, I be­lieve it’s like her lead­ing her life now. The pa­tri­archy is slowly but surely turn­ing to land of equal­ity. This is amaz­ing. It’s the first few steps of free­dom. We are part of this big vi­sion. We women are now taken into con­sid­er­a­tion.”

Un­der the new law, an­nounced last Tuesday, women can legally ob­tain a driv­ing li­cence with­out ask­ing a male guardian for per­mis­sion, de­spite “guardian­ship” laws that grant Saudi men power over fe­male rel­a­tives.

Less than a day af­ter the royal de­cree was is­sued, Saudi women said the shock was still be­ing ab­sorbed across the king­dom, where so­ci­etal rules are of­ten gov­erned by an in­flex­i­ble read­ing of Is­lamic teach­ings.

Se­nior Saudi cler­ics ap­peared to be on­side, re­spond­ing with an ap­par­ently co­or­di­nated se­ries of pub­lic state­ments, aimed at shift­ing a widely ex­pected con­ser­va­tive push­back.

The com­mis­sion of top Is­lamic cler­ics tweeted: “May God bless the king who looks out for the in­ter­est of his peo­ple and his coun­try in ac­cor­dance with sharia law.”

Dr Ab­del-Latif al Sheikh, the for­mer head of the re­li­gious po­lice, tweeted: “Women driv­ing is not against sharia and women will choose what best suits them.”

Sheikh Khaled al Mosleh, a pro­fes­sor of reli­gion in Saudi Ara­bia, also tweeted that “al­low­ing women to drive an­swered the needs of a big por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion”, and added a lengthy jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the move un­der Is­lamic law.

“There’s still a lot of ru­mours go­ing on,” said Saud. “Sharia law can still play a large role in this. There are ru­mours about women not be­ing able to drive [in parts of] Saudi, that you have to be above a cer­tain age, that there might be a cur­few.”

Sana Kay­ali, 21, a univer­sity stu­dent in the Saudi cap­i­tal, said: “This is a very good be­gin­ning. Who would’ve thought we are start­ing to be­come mod­ern. I be­lieve change will take place grad­u­ally.”

Saudi lead­ers have longed pledged to over­turn the driv­ing ban, which had meant that the coun­try’s fe­male cit­i­zens were the only women in the world legally for­bid­den from sit­ting be­hind the wheel. They had couched the de­lay as nec­es­sary to con­di­tion deeply con­ser­va­tive sec­tions of Saudi so­ci­ety to a change that has broad im­pli­ca­tions for women’s roles.

The end­ing of the ban on women driv­ing in Saudi Ara­bia is cel­e­brated across the globe as a ma­jor royal gift to the women in the king­dom. Fol­low­ing King Sal­man’s de­cree, women will no longer need per­mis­sion from a le­gal guardian to get a li­cence and will not need a guardian in the car when they drive.

While many women will no doubt ben­e­fit, the de­ci­sion must be as­sessed in the con­text of an ab­so­lute monar­chy cham­pi­oning women’s causes while de­tain­ing pro­fes­sion­als, cler­ics and ac­tivists, to spread ter­ror and in­tim­i­date.

Saudi women still can­not marry, work, study, travel or seek health­care with­out the consent of their male guardians. The Saudi state is one of the most male-dom­i­nated in the world. Now it is com­pelled to look as if it is treat­ing women bet­ter to win over crit­ics in the west.

As a re­sult, it has em­barked on a se­ries of cos­metic re­forms. In­creas­ing women’s em­ploy­ment is part of that. Women have been al­lowed to work as cashiers in su­per­mar­kets or as cooks. There are also plans to ap­point them to high-rank­ing po­si­tions. Yet we know from other coun­tries that when such ap­point­ments have been made with­out se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal change women have found it doesn’t lead to their em­pow­er­ment. Women can never be­come equal cit­i­zens with­out real democrati­sa­tion, but none of the re­forms of­fer this.

Ap­pear­ing to sup­port women has won dic­ta­tors ap­plause, es­pe­cially in the west, where women’s rights have be­come an axis against which to mea­sure na­tions and eval­u­ate regimes. To­day’s au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes will win ex­tra praise when they ap­pear to be lib­er­at­ing Mus­lim women from the op­pres­sion of Is­lam. Saudi Ara­bia is no ex­cep­tion. Gen­der is­sues have be­come an im­por­tant bat­tle­ground across the Mid­dle East. They have been cited as rea­sons for in­ter­na­tional in­ter­ven­tion in the Mus­lim world, and have helped to sus­tain au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes. Saudi women will soon find that full rights as cit­i­zens can only be achieved if they join with men to call for full in­clu­sion in gov­ern­ment.


Shift­ing gears … It is now le­gal for Saudi women to gain a driv­ing li­cence with­out a male guardian’s per­mis­sion

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