Saudi women drivers: a PR move, not a breakthrough

The kingdom’s women look set to be kept away from the wheels of power

Wheels of progress?: from June 2018 women will be able to get a driving licence without a male relative’s permission  and to drive without a male relative in the car. Photograph: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty

Wheels of progress?: from June 2018 women will be able to get a driving licence without a male relative’s permission and to drive without a male relative in the car. Photograph: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty

 

King Salman’s decree lifting the ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia has been celebrated as a breakthrough in a campaign against men’s controls over women in the country. Women will be able to get a driving licence without a male relative’s permission and to drive without a male relative in the car.

But the change marks only a minor relaxation of the Saudi system of “guardianship” that requires women to secure permission from fathers, brothers, husbands or sons to obtain passports, open bank accounts, take jobs, travel abroad, marry and seek medical treatment. These legal and cultural restrictions remain firmly in place despite constant challenge from some Saudi women and human-rights organisations.

The decree stipulated that the shift in policy must adhere to sharia, or Muslim canon law, standards, but it didn’t specify these. A ministerial committee is to advise on implementation within 30 days, and the order is to be in force by June 2018.

The religious establishment has argued that allowing women to drive would encourage promiscuity and put women alone in cars at risk of rape

Although the change has been approved by the government-appointed Council of Senior Scholars, the country’s highest religious authority, sharia could still be used to impose restrictions, particularly as the delay in enforcement could prompt ultraconservative clerics, officials and citizens to demand limitations on who should be allowed behind the wheel, as well as when and where they might drive.

Women have long pressed for the lifting of the ban, as they have to rely on male relatives or hire drivers to take them to shops, schools, workplaces and appointments. The religious establishment has argued that allowing women to drive would encourage promiscuity and put women alone in cars at risk of attack and rape. Women in rural communities have, without the benefit of licences, always driven tractors and farm vehicles.

As Saudi Arabia is the only country to prohibit women from driving, the measure is portrayed as a significant step forward. But driving can open only a chink in the wall that surrounds women and prevents social interaction between the sexes.

Another narrow crack appeared last week when women were permitted to enter a secluded family section of a sport stadium with their spouses on Saudi National Day.

Although mixing with unrelated men is strictly limited, women have made political, sporting and employment gains in recent years. In 2011 they were granted the right to vote and stand in local elections, which took place in 2015. Women competed in the 2012 Olympic Games, and in 2013 the late King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the Shura, or advisory assembly.

This week, for the first time, a woman became a deputy mayor: Iman Bint Abdullah al-Ghamdi was put in charge of women’s issues and information technology in a town in the eastern region.

At a time when the Saudi kingdom is seen as reactionary and repressive, opening up opportunities for women is regarded as a way to impress and silence critics

Under Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s Vision 30 plan for the economic transformation of the oil-dependent kingdom, the percentage of women in the workforce is meant to increase from 16 to 28 per cent by 2020. Most of these will be in the small-business sector and will work at home, where they will not require chaperones or vehicles. Women, who account for more than half of university graduates, are employed as female educators, lawyers and assistants in shops selling to women, factories employing women and women-only operations in the hospitality sector.

In neighbouring Gulf emirates women are playing high-profile roles in their societies. Sheikha Lubna al-Qasimi of the United Arab Emirates has held three ministerial posts. On a Forbes list of 100 most influential Arab businesswomen, 18 are from the UAE, where women drive, circulate freely and are employed in the public and private sectors.

At a time when the Saudi kingdom is seen as reactionary and repressive, opening up opportunities for women is regarded as a way to impress and silence critics. According to one Saudi academic, the planned relaxation on driving is part of a public-relations effort to divert international attention from the kingdom’s disastrous regional policies. Prof Madawi al-Rashid of the London School of Economics told the BBC that “the Saudi king needs women at the moment. He needs the publicity” provided by an end to the ban “given that his regional policies have utterly failed in Syria, Yemen and Qatar”.

The Saudis have lost the wars in Syria and Yemen as well as the campaign to isolate and blockade Qatar, to force it to capitulate to Riyadh’s demands. She also argues that the crown prince needs women to join the workforce.

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