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Women’s rights activists who have pushed for gender equality in Saudi Arabia celebrated a long-awaited victory on 26 September 2017 with the announcement that a royal decree had been issued lifting the country’s controversial ban on women driving.
The decree is effective immediately but the rollout will take months, the state press agency reported. A committee of ministers has been formed to examine the arrangements for enforcing the decree, which is expected to be implemented by 24 June 2018.
‘Saudi Arabia will never be the same again,’ activist Manal al-Sharif wrote on Twitter following the reversal of the ban. ‘The rain begins with a single drop.’
Al-Sharif was arrested in 2011 after posting a video of herself driving on YouTube, as part of a call for women to participate in the Women2Drive campaign, and spent nine days in jail. Undeterred, she has continued to call for changes in the Saudi system, which holds women to a different standard than men, based on a highly conservative interpretation of Islam.
In a statement posted after the decision to overturn the ban, al-Sharif praised the fellow activists who campaigned for change, while promising to press ahead for more sweeping reforms. ‘Women campaigning to end this ban have lost their freedom, their jobs, jeopardized their safety and had their cars confiscated and held. They have been harassed, jailed and their families have been targeted. They have been called every degrading name and viciously attacked. They have lost their life as they have known it for daring to drive on the streets of Saudi Arabia,’ she wrote.
’Today, 26 September 2017, marks the date we end one of the most draconian laws in modern history. Women’s rights activists will still continue to observe how this law is implemented and monitored and will continue campaigning to abolish the male guardianship imposed on them. We ask for nothing short of full equality for women.’
The ban on women driving is not written into Saudi law, but it has until now been illegal to issue driving licences to women and the practice was prohibited by religious fatwas (edicts).
In 1990, Saudi women organized the first mass protest against the de facto driving ban. The protest was held after Saudi women saw American women soldiers driving on military bases in the country during the first Gulf War. About four dozen Saudi women drove through the capital Riyadh in a convoy to draw attention to their cause, until they were stopped by police. The drivers faced severe repercussions: they were all banned from travelling abroad for a year, those with government jobs were fired and many were publically harassed.
Following the protest, the then grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdel Aziz bin Baz, issued a fatwa in which he formalized the ban, saying that allowing women to drive could lead to them meeting men they were unrelated to and removing the hijab, causing social chaos. The fatwa was followed by a directive by the Ministry of Interior prohibiting women from driving.
Another surge of protests against the restriction began in 2007, when activists Wajeeha al-Huwaider and Fawzia al-Uyyouni collected about 1,100 signatures on a petition supporting women’s right to drive and delivered it to King Abdullah. He had said soon after taking the throne in 2005 that he was sure women would drive eventually but that society was not ready.
The following year, al-Huwaider posted a video of herself driving on YouTube, in which she appealed to the interior minister to lift the ban. In 2011, amid the Arab Spring protests sweeping the region, al-Sharif and other activists launched the #Women2Drive movement, prompting dozens of women to drive publicly on 17 June of that year. Al-Shareef was detained for her role in the protests until the king called for her release.
The campaign continued in 2013, when more women activists were arrested for defying the ban. On 10 October 2013, police detained blogger Eman al-Nafjan and another woman, who was driving while al-Nafjan filmed her. They were released after they and their male ‘guardians’ signed a pledge that the women would not drive again. Several weeks later, on 26 October 2013, dozens of women drove in defiance of the ban as part of a national campaign.
The following year, activist Loujain al-Hathloul was arrested and held for more than two months after she attempted to drive from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia. A second woman, journalist Maysaa al-Amoudi, who went to the border to support al-Hathloul, was also jailed.
In other areas, women have made gradual gains in rights over the past several years. In 2015, for the first time, women were permitted to vote and stand as candidates in local elections. However, only a few were elected and those who were elected were not permitted to attend council sessions in the same room as men. In 2016, the government also moved to scale back the powers of the religious police, who may now publicly rebuke people but not arrest them for (perceived) violations of religious law.
The labour market has also become increasingly accessible to women, in part because of legal changes that have opened up some service and retail positions, in an attempt to replace male foreign workers with Saudi women and to reduce unemployment benefits, which currently cost the government around $10.6 billion a year.
Seen in this light, repealing the driving ban is simply a matter of economic expedience. Transportation is one of the major barriers that has prevented women from entering the workforce. Without a fully functional public transportation system, women who need to commute to work must either rely on male relatives or hire drivers or taxis, which can be prohibitively expensive for women working in low-wage jobs. Furthermore, the reliance on male drivers conflicts with the same religious precepts that prompted the ban on women driving in the first place, namely meeting men to whom they are unrelated.
Influential Saudi royal Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a longtime supporter of overturning the ban, issued a statement back in November 2016 saying that ‘otherwise, [women] would have to remain dependent on foreign drivers, an alternative that exacts a cost from the family’s income, or else continue to take cabs, which are also costly, and driven by foreign drivers, which is a situation that is a source of concern to many Muslims who see it as a violation of sharia law’.
With the driving ban lifted, activists’ next target is the guardianship system, which makes women legally dependent on male relatives, requiring their approval for such life decisions as getting married, travelling abroad or renting an apartment. In spite of the recent loosening of some of the requirements, any assertions of equality in the kingdom will sound hollow to many Saudi women as long as this system remains in place.