Isabella Craig considers the end of one of the world’s most glaringly sexist traditions, and the fight that’s still to come.
The long-standing Saudi Arabian ban on women driving was finally lifted on the 26th June 2017 by the royal decree of King Salman. It comes after decades of condemnation for what was the only such ban in the world, often used as a pinnacle example of the poor status of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
The driving ban has for many years deprived women of autonomy, forcing them out of work or leaving them with no choice but to stay at home. The ban saw women leaving their jobs due to the expensive costs of hiring a chauffeur, a luxury that is not usually afforded to multiple women in any singular family; women in the same families would have to share one chauffeur and compromise their movements around his availability, or alternatively rely on a male family member. The limitations imposed by such a ban have been exacerbated by the fact that Saudi Arabia has little to no public transport nor pedestrianisation.
Unsurprisingly, opposition to the ban has been public since its conception. In 1990, forty-seven women drove in an organised protest in Riyadh against what was then an unwritten ban; they were arrested and the ban was later written into law. In 2008, despite the criminalisation of the act – and in honour of International Women’s Day – Wajeha al-Huwaider filmed herself driving, posted it online and was also arrested subsequently.
In 2011, following the arrests of these women, the Women2Drive campaign was founded to organise protests against the ban. The most prominent figure of the campaign was activist Manal al-Sharif, who, like al-Huwaider, gained media attention when she was arrested for filming and posting a video online of herself driving. She was released after nine days, but was forced out of her job and eventually the country due to frequent threats.
The tireless efforts of Saudi women activists to lift the ban has gained international attention, but unfortunately the lifting of the ban is unlikely to have been due to widespread support for gender equality. Women have long had very few rights – paternalistic Guardianship laws give male family members (including sons) essentially complete control over their women relatives; they are ‘part of a bigger system of subjugating women’, as activist al-Huwaider points out. Women cannot travel abroad, sign contracts, get married or, in some cases, leave jail, without their official guardian giving his consent. While these laws have in recent years been relaxed, it still stands that if a man exerts his authority as guardian over his woman relative, that authority is prioritised over her wishes.
With this ongoing oppression in mind, the cause of the driving ban being lifted is understood to be part of the struggling royal family’s move to diversify the oil-dependent economy of Saudi Arabia. The rise of alternative energy sources means that to remain wealthy, the country needs more workers to enter its private sector – which can only come from encouraging more women to work. Lifting the driving ban means that more Saudi women can avoid the impracticalities and expense of travelling to work that stem from being forbidden to drive.
It is unlikely that men raised in an environment that gives them full and legal control over women will provide no opposition to these new freedoms for women: when power dynamics are shifted toward equality, those who had the most power will always resist their loss. While this definitely isn’t reason enough to keep the ban – resistance from men is inevitable in achieving gender equality – it does mean that the work of anti-ban activists is not over.
Only two days after the ban was announced, a man was arrested for threatening to attack women drivers. Manal al-Sharif has also previously pointed out that ‘in kingdoms of men, there are few – if any – choices for women,’ indicating that if there is widespread active discouragement from clerics and male family members, women could be deprived of their freedom to choose to drive, due to fear of reproach or condemnation if they do so. Since the announcement of the lifting of the ban, she has suggested as much may well occur.
The abolition of one oppressive law is not the solution to women’s oppression in Saudi Arabia, but it is a step in the right direction. In the same space as celebrating the end of the ban, Saudi women have been quick to point out that the biggest fight is still ahead: ending the oppressive Guardianship laws once and for all.
Illustration by Maria Paradinas