Last week in Saudi Arabia, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz decreed that both men and women will be allowed to obtain driver’s licenses. The decree lifts a ban which makes Saudi Arabia the last country to allow women to drive. Licenses will be issued to women from June 2018.
The lifted ban comes after a Saudi cleric stated women should not be allowed to drive, because their brains shrink to a quarter the size of a man’s after they go shopping. The cleric was banned from preaching and his derogatory actions helped instigate the new decree.
Protests by women against the driving ban have been widespread across the country since the 1990s. In November 1990, 47 Saudi women drove their cars around Riyadh to protest the driving ban. After facing severe punishment, the campaign died away until 2008, when more women drove around the country in an act of defiance.
More recently, in 2011, Manal al-Sharif filmed herself driving in Saudi Arabia and posted it on YouTube. The video gained over 700,000 views in just one day. Following her protest, Sharif was detained in prison for a week after committing the offense of “driving while female.” Since 2011, she has become the public face for the campaign in allowing women to drive – despite now living in Australia.
Other changes for women have also been made within Saudi Arabia. As of 2015, women were given the right to vote and stand for municipal elections. And just last month, Saudi Arabia’s national stadium welcomed its first female spectators to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of Saudi Arabia.
Yet despite these strides forward, women are still limited in many aspects of daily life. Saudi Arabian women are supervised by their ‘wali.’ A male guardian – typically a brother, father, son or husband – who must give permission to women for all major activities. This includes the right to have a job, travel, obtain a passport, get married or divorced, and sign contracts.
Saudi women are also still limited by their choice for attire. All Abayas (a traditional Saudi garment) must be void of any decorations, slits, or embellishments. Interactions with men are also limited, with Saudi women’s names traditionally not being used. Typically, women are addressed as a man’s wife, sister, daughter or mother. If women and men are not related, their exchanges are particularly limited, with strangers addressing women as “auntie” or “teacher.”
The lifted ban on women driving has also created an economic push within the country. Many have criticised King Salman’s decree as an economic motivation, rather than a stride for equality.
Last year, the Saudi Arabian government announced ‘Vision 2030,’ the country’s plan to reduce its dependence on oil while also diversifying the economy. Through the plan, Saudi Arabia plans to move its workforce towards the private-sector. To effectively initiate this plan, women must be more openly welcomed into the Saudi workforce. A greater possibility if women are granted driver’s licenses.
Women in Saudi Arabia currently make up 17-22% of the workforce, a number significantly lower than the percentage of women who graduate from college. Notably, Saudi women do not require permission from their male guardians to enrol in university, but they do when applying for jobs. Workplaces are also still segregated by gender, which makes it more difficult to ensure true integration in the workforce.
Currently 1.3 million foreigners are hired as drivers in Saudi Arabia, which accounts for roughly 60% of Saudi Arabia’s total number of foreign domestic workers. Interestingly, little of that money stays within Saudi Arabia, with most foreigners sending the money outside the country’s borders.
Although the decree allowing women to drive is not even a week old, car companies and driving schools are already being marketed towards women. With a female population of 14.8 million in the country, a new market for female drivers is anticipated by businesses.
While the motivations for lifting the ban may not be entirely honourable, and may be exploited by corporations , there is a greater message embedded in the decree. Challenges to Saudi women remain ever-present, yet by allowing women the right to drive, greater opportunities will exist not only for individuals, but also for wider society.
Saudi Arabia is not the only country reshaping women’s rights in the region. In July this year, Afghani women protested the custom of erasing a woman’s name – a similar practice to that which exists in Saudi Arabia. Taking to social media, the campaign #Whereismyname encouraged Afghani women to reclaim their names and for others to address them accordingly. Also in the Arab world, Tunisia is pressing to reform the country’s laws on marriage. In early September 2017, president Beji Caid Essebi announced his intention to allow women to marry outside of their Muslim faith. Thus falling in line with the country’s inheritance laws, and granting Tunisian women greater freedom.
Other countries in these regions should look towards the recent changes for inspiration, and instigate similar actions within their own governments. Gender equality still requires phenomenal leaps forward. Yet by allowing these changes to continue, not only will economies be boosted, but true progress and equity can be achieved.