Driv­ing rights near for Saudi women

Hu­man rights ex­perts say that’s still not enough

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Han­nah Wi­ley

What is sup­posed to be a cel­e­bra­tory time for women’s rights ac­tivists in Saudi Ara­bia has be­come an­other op­por­tu­nity to ad­vo­cate for fur­ther gen­der equal­ity in the coun­try.

As the right to drive in one of the world’s most con­ser­va­tive coun­tries be­comes re­al­ity this month, fe­male ac­tivists con­tinue to be ar­rested for their sup­port of gen­der par­ity.

Here’s a his­tory of Saudi women’s rights and the pro­posed changes un­der­way in this strictly re­li­gious coun­try.

Sig­nif­i­cant mo­ments in his­tory

The Saudi gov­ern­ment has tight con­trol over women’s rights and free­doms. Un­der the strict in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lam called Wah­habism, women have lim­ited agency over their de­ci­sions to move, dress and work. It takes years, even decades in some cases, to re­verse these laws. Schools: Girls were not al­lowed to at­tend school un­til 1955 and the first univer­sity for women did not open un­til 1970. Male and fe­male stu­dents are still sep­a­rated in dif­fer­ent schools, and are only taught by mem­bers of their own gen­der.

Pol­i­tics: Nora al-Faiz be­came the high­est fe­male gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tive in 2009 when she was elected as deputy ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter for women’s af­fairs. It would be an­other four years be­fore women were al­lowed to serve on the Shura Coun­cil, which serves as an ad­vi­sory group to the king. The coun­try was also the lat­est to give women the right to vote in 2011 and to run for lo­cal office in 2015.

Right to drive: The Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man an­nounced in Septem­ber 2017 that women would be al­lowed to drive start­ing on June 24. Ten women were is­sued the first round of li­censes on June 4.

A long bat­tle in the fight to drive

Protests against the driv­ing ban date back to 1990, and grass-roots cam­paigns have since popped up in the na­tional fight for the right to drive. A cam­paign led by Manal al-Sharif called #Women2Drive started in 2011.

While women lack au­ton­omy over many as­pects of their lives, the right to drive is one of the most pro­nounced move­ments in the coun­try. Saudi Ara­bia is the only coun­try that still de­nies women the abil­ity to drive.

The crown prince said he wants women to help the econ­omy and has be­gun lifting bans against women par­tic­i­pat­ing in the work­force. But women would need more free­dom of move­ment to get to work, a ra­tionale that prompted the ban’s lifting.

Ar­rests: More than a dozen women have been de­tained by Saudi au­thor­i­ties.

“They are be­hind bars and they should be be­hind the wheel,” Amnesty In­ter­na­tional’s Samah Ha­did said in an in­ter­view with USA TO­DAY.

In­ter­na­tional sup­port for the de­tainees came pour­ing in af­ter the news went vi­ral. Hu­man rights ad­vo­cates say the act is a “smear cam­paign” by the gov­ern­ment to dis­pel any hope for pro­gres­sive changes.

“The mes­sage is don’t get any ideas. You don’t ac­tu­ally have any rights,” said Sarah Leah Whit­son of Hu­man Rights Watch.

Whit­son said jail­ing ac­tivists is an act by the crown prince to quash dis­sent in Saudi Ara­bia and that hu­man rights de­ci­sions are his to make alone. She ex­plained that im­pris­on­ing those most vo­cal about Saudi women’s rights is a tac­tic to si­lence and threaten any­one who wants equal­ity.

“I, the crown prince get to de­cide, I gift you rights. You may not de­mand them,” Whit­son said.

In ad­di­tion to al­low­ing women to drive and want­ing to in­clude them in the work­force, The Washington Post re­ported that the crown prince wants to ap­peal to both the re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives and so­cial lib­er­als. The prince even lifted a decades-long ban on Saudi movie the­aters.

But hu­man rights ad­vo­cates like Ha­did said these changes aren’t enough.

What women still can’t do

There’s still great dis­par­ity be­tween men and women in Saudi Ara­bia.

Women are ex­pected and en­cour­aged to wear the tra­di­tional abaya, a long black robe that cov­ers most of a woman’s skin.

With­out a hus­band or a male guardian, women have lit­tle agency over ev­ery­day de­ci­sions. They are not al­lowed to travel, open a bank ac­count, ap­ply for a pass­port, achieve an ed­u­ca­tion, work, get mar­ried or go abroad with­out per­mis­sion by a close male rel­a­tive.

Women and men are also still largely sep­a­rated from each other. They do not work in the same spa­ces. It is against Wah­habism for men and women to be in close prox­im­ity if they are not re­lated.

Whit­son said that al­though the right to drive is an im­por­tant step for­ward in achiev­ing equal­ity for women in Saudi Ara­bia, there is still much work to be done in rid­ding the coun­try of guardian­ship laws.

“Driv­ing is the least of it,” she said. “It’s a small and im­por­tant step in these oner­ous and dis­crim­i­na­tory prac­tices against women.”

“Driv­ing is the least of it. It’s a small and im­por­tant step in these oner­ous and dis­crim­i­na­tory prac­tices against women.”

Sarah Leah Whit­son Hu­man Rights Watch


Women in Saudi Ara­bia are still en­cour­aged to wear the tra­di­tional abaya but are ex­pected to be al­lowed to drive be­gin­ning this month as they hope to gain more rights in the con­ser­va­tive coun­try.

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