Saudi women allowed to drive
Royal decree overturning ban seen as turning point in conservative kingdom
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