In what has been hailed by international policymakers and local citizens alike as a huge victory for women, Saudi Arabia has finally granted half of its population the ability to drive independently.
According to the New York Times, the absolute monarchy announced on Tuesday via both royal decree and Washington press conference that it will overturn a longstanding policy that has been under fire by activists for over two decades.
The oppressive regulation has strained relationships between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world for years, with the country denying all efforts at change and even jailing women who defied the law by attempting to drive themselves.
Arguments used by the proponents of the former law, as cited by the New York Times, include that “it was inappropriate in Saudi culture for women to drive, or that male drivers would not know how to handle having women in cars next to them;” that “allowing women to drive would lead to promiscuity and the collapse of the Saudi family;” and even that “driving harmed women’s ovaries” (a claim that has no factual basis whatsoever).
Yet with the rise of 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the tides seem to be changing: the prince plans to increase the number of women in the workplace and to revamp the struggling economy.
Indeed, an attempt to kickstart the economy was likely a major underlying factor in the government’s deliberations. The NYT explains that “low oil prices have limited the government jobs that many Saudis have long relied on, and the kingdom is trying to push more citizens, including women, into private sector employment.”
This integration of women into the workforce is a nearly impossible task when women are obligated to hire and pay private drivers out of their own earnings. Kholoud Attar, a 32-year-old Saudi designer and magazine owner interviewed by CNN, told the news source that “employing a driver currently eats up a third of the average monthly salary for her staff members.” However, with women now able to drive themselves to work, there is a much larger incentive to work and thus to add their disposable incomes to the financial pool.
Nouf Alosaimi, a 29-year-old driving instructor based in Jeddah, also noted in an interview with CNN that “the decision would increase tourism revenues, not just because of the expected increase in women tourists but also thanks to women-run tourism businesses.”
Regardless of the motivations, Saudi Arabia’s decision to extend the right to drive to its women has been making headlines worldwide as an event of major importance. Heather Nauert, the State Department’s spokeswoman, called it “a great step in the right direction for that country,” while Saudi Arabian activist Manal al-Sharif – who was previously jailed and sent death threats for posting a YouTube video of herself driving a car back in 2011 – told CNN that, though the magnitude of the decision “won’t make sense” to non-Saudi women, “it’s a huge battle that was won.”
While this undoubtedly marks a huge milestone for Saudi Arabia, it’s still important to note that many restrictions still exist for women in the country, with the most notable example being the guardian laws that make daily life for women incredibly difficult.
As the New York Times explains, “Under these laws, women cannot travel abroad, work or undergo some medical procedures without the consent of their male ‘guardian,’ often a father, a husband or even a son (even one who is still legally a child). While the enforcement of guardianship laws has loosened in recent years, there is little to stop Saudi men from greatly limiting the movements of their wives or daughters.”
Due to these guardian laws, according to CNN’s article, Saudi Arabian women still cannot “marry, divorce, travel, get a job or have elective surgery without permission from their male guardians.” They also cannot mix freely with men in most places, with one drastic example being that “in 2013, authorities ordered shops that employ both men and women to build ‘separation walls’ to enforce rules preventing the sexes from mixing together.” Women cannot receive an equal inheritance as men, nor can they “retain custody of their children in a divorce after they reach the age of seven for boys and nine for girls,” to list only a few of the many limitations still imposed upon them.
As Liesl Gerntholtz, executive director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, pointed out to CNN, “This prohibition on driving is just one in a vast series of laws and policies which prevent women from doing many things.” While a huge battle was indeed won for Saudi Arabian women this past week, many more remain to be fought before true equality is even close to being achieved in the nation.
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