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Saudi women at the wheel? Not quite…

So I know we’re all rather news-ADD and we’ve all been super distracted lately and there are lots of competing headlines (Italy didn’t qualify?! Whaaaaaaa?!) but didn’t the entire world pause for a second, anticipating the sound of engines revving up by Saudi women behind the wheel?! Remember that?!

So – what’s the deal on the kingdom’s roads these days? Have we already forgotten about this?!

Even I had nearly forgotten about this sea-change, until I saw this. Whatever you might think of CocaColaCapitalism, I cannot deny that it made me a little squishy. I’m a sucker for freedom and equality and all. Almost as much as puppies and cookies.

The right to drive was touted as a feminist victory by some (although not by this chick who refuses to celebrate rights granted as little crumbs but rather expects the whole-damn-cake STAT).


On 26 September, Saudi Arabia’s misogynist monarchy made the unexpected announcement that it would lift the ban on women driving, despite recently jailing women for getting behind the wheel. Women will not be on the roads immediately, of course. The country’s leaders (men) need to rework the driving infrastructure (men – teaching other men) and licensing procedures (men – granting permission to other men). This in a society where men and women hardly interact, and where women need a male guardian to make decisions and give permissions on their behalf.

Saudi women aren’t lining up for licenses just yet. They will have to complete up to 120 hours of lessons – which of course will take months. And, to make sure women don’t get on the road toooooo quickly, the Directorate General of Traffic decreed that immediate tests for drivers are abolished. Meaning even if women have international drivers permits, they may still have to wait.

So, the ban is seemingly still in effect. And our road parties were premature. Meanwhile, women in Saudi Arabia have been warned to stay off the roads until the royal decree takes effect in June 2018. This would even include our CocaCola girl, I presume. And again, the decree doesn’t mean open roads.

The ban served as a symbol of the country’s repressive attitude towards women and their denial of women’s rights and fundamental freedoms. While there remains a global fetish with “liberating” veiled women, Saudi women have long resisted their government’s edicts – on and off the roads.

In 2011, Manal al-Sharif encouraged Saudi women to post photos of themselves behind the wheel as part of the Women2Drive campaign. Over seventy cases of women driving were documented thereafter. The Interior Ministry warned that “laws will be applied against violators,” a reminder that driving-while-female remained taboo.

While no one seems to locate evidence of this ban in religious texts, Saudi religious leaders provide a range of colorful explanations: women driving leads to promiscuity, which would in turn bring an increase in male homosexuality due to the resulting shortage of virgin females. There’s also concern with withering ovaries, despite a notable absence of scientific evidence to corroborate this claim.

Now with this ban in the rear-view mirror, where does that leave other critical rights? Saudi women remain constrained by extreme interpretations of religious texts that deny their freedom of mobility and bodily autonomy.

As such, this could be viewed as tokenistic, an isolated gift from a benevolent patriarch rather than a fundamental right to which all are entitled.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has reaffirmed its place on the UN Human Rights Council and in April 2017 was elected to the Women’s Rights Commission, accompanying 44 countries in “promoting women’s rights… and shaping global standards on gender equality and the empowerment of women.”

The irony is not lost on women’s rights activists.

This must be viewed in the context of regional socio-political changes such as the repeal of discriminatory laws in Tunisia, Lebanon, and Jordan. There are less positive changes, such as the ongoing crisis in Syria and neighboring countries, and Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Each step forward is met with a reversal of several kilometers.

The 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, ranking health, education, economic and political engagement, placed Saudi Arabia 141 out of 144 countries.

Is this only about driving? And is driving the only gain to be made? Saudi activists like Manal el-Sharif hope that this does not detract from their fight for full freedom.

Driving does little to indicate a Saudi sea-change for women’s rights. Rather it serves as a calculated political exercise to repair a fractured reputation and score public relations points with the international community.

As long as patriarchy still reigns in Saudi Arabia, women will have to wait a while longer to get behind the wheel.

#GenderEquality #GenderGap #SaudiArabia

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