Saudi women rejoice at right to drive
Does the end of the ban on women driving show real progress or is it a distraction from even worse human rights abuses? Saudi Arabia is the last country in the world to allow female drivers.
Imagine a world where your mother is not allowed to drive. Where women just attempting to sit behind the wheel could result in them being arrested, losing their passport and being publicly whipped.
Until 48 hours ago, this was a reality for women in the conservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (“KSA”). King Salman has issued a decree lifting the ban on female drivers, in a move described by President Trump as “a positive step toward promoting the rights and opportunities of women in Saudi Arabia”.
The “Desert Kingdom” is governed by sharia, which restricts women’s rights. Women cannot travel alone, open a bank account or seek a divorce.
KSA has consistently ranked amongst the “worst of the worst” in the Freedom House annual global survey of political and civil rights. Human Rights Watch reported that 154 executions were carried out last year.
But the new decree has been praised by Saudis and international onlookers as an important moment on the path to a more liberal country. “This is a great victory for many Saudi women,” said Latifah Alshaalan, who sits on a government advisory panel.
Women have been prevented from driving in KSA since 1957, with protests beginning in earnest in 1990. The campaign for female drivers intensified in 2011, when 35 Saudi women drove cars in the capital of Riyadh and launched the “Women2Drive” movement.
KSA’s ruling class has taken other, tentative steps towards modernisation in recent years. The Saudi Vision 2030, launched in April 2016, aims to transform KSA by reducing its reliance on oil, expanding global trade and promoting tourism.
Still, some think all this is not enough. Aziza Youssef, a Saudi activist and professor at King Saud University, described the driving decree as “the first step in a lot of rights we are waiting for”. But unless the ruling family confronts its country’s horrendous civil rights record, the road to Saudi modernisation could be a long and arduous one.
Is the end of the driving ban a sign of progress for civil rights in KSA or just a concession, so that the government can avoid tackling bigger problems?
“This is a significant moment for all Saudis,” say some. King Salman is showing that he wants to bring KSA into the modern world. Although this is just a small first step, it is an important one nonetheless. We should feel optimistic about the future of Saudi citizens.
“The government is using this issue to avoid facing up to the real problems,” reply others. Whether or not women can drive is insignificant in comparison to the outrageous human rights abuses that happen every day in Saudi Arabia. This decree provides yet more evidence of an archaic and disconnected ruling class.
- Have cars done more bad than good?
- Is driving a human right?
- Everyone needs a slip of paper. Consider the question: “How important on KSA’s path to modernisation is the decision to allow Saudi women to drive?” On your own, rank the decision on a scale of 1-10 (1 being not at all significant, 10 being very significant). Ask your teacher to combine all the votes and see what the rest of your class think. Are you surprised by the result?
- Freedom House concluded that Saudi Arabia is the 12th worst country in the world for political and civil rights. In pairs, research and decide what you think the top 11 might be. Be prepared to justify your choices to the class. When you have finished, you can compare your list to Freedom House’s, on page 4 of the final “Become An Expert” link.
Some People Say...
“The secret to happiness is freedom... and the secret to freedom is courage.”Thucydides, an ancient Greek historian.
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- The driving ban for women has been a long-standing symbol of backwardness for Saudi Arabia, marring its worldwide reputation. Nonetheless, women have made a lot of progress in recent years. A 2015 government report found that there were more women than men studying in universities.
- What do we not know?
- We do not yet know how many women will begin to drive following this decree. Saudi society is highly patriarchal and traditional. It may be that this new freedom is more important for future generations than for Saudi women today.
- Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
- The House of Saud began the conquest of the various tribes and kingdoms of the Arabian Peninsula in 1902. Abdel Aziz Al Saud proclaimed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 and named himself king.
- King Salman
- Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy. There are no political parties or elections. The royal family and its associates make up the entire governing body of the country.
- Saudi Arabia’s legal system is based on the Islamic law code, sharia. This means that religious leaders hold a great deal of power. Many of them oppose the decision to allow women to drive, believing that it will lead to the corruption of KSA’s values.
- You can receive the death penalty in Saudi Arabia for terrorism and drug-related crimes. The Saudi government hands out punishments such as whipping for offences including homosexuality, drinking alcohol, and criticising the government.
- Saudi Vision 2030
- It was announced in June 2017 that the plan’s chairman and one of King Salman's sons, Mohammad bin Salman, would be the next king of KSA.