Saudi Arabia: Driving change

 

Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it will allow women to drive is an important breakthrough, but it was long overdue and only underlines the shamefully oppressive conditions in which women are forced to live in the ultra-conservative kingdom.

The driving ban, which will be lifted from next June, has been a long-standing stain on Saudi Arabia’s image, and the fact that the decision to end it was announced at an event in Washington within an hour of the issuing of the royal decree in Riyadh suggests the move was at least partly driven by public relations concerns. Given the failure of Saudi policies in Syria, Yemen and Qatar, the royals could certainly use some good press.

The youthful crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, has been moving tentatively towards an easing of social restrictions

The decision is also a reflection of economic pressures, however. A collapse in the price of oil is forcing the regime to diversify the economy and expand the private sector. Ending the driving ban may help. While women outnumber men in Saudi universities, they make up just 15 per cent of the workforce. Those who do work must pay for male chauffeurs or taxis every day, a cost that deters some from getting jobs.

The youthful crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, has been moving tentatively towards an easing of social restrictions. The religious police have lost some of their power, a new General Entertainment Authority organises live music concerts and, last week, women were allowed to enter a secluded family section in a sports stadium.

In this 2014 photograph Aziza Yousef drives a car in Riyadh as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving. Photograph: AP Photo/Hasan Jamali
In this 2014 photograph Aziza Yousef drives a car in Riyadh as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving. Photograph: AP Photo/Hasan Jamali

However, recent changes cannot obscure the fact that women remain second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia. Under the “guardianship” system, women cannot marry, divorce, travel, open a bank account, get a job or have elective surgery without permission from a male family member. They cannot appear in public without a full-length black abaya, the law denies them an equal inheritance and many public spaces are strictly segregated by sex.

For the many brave Saudi women who took risks to campaign for an end to the driving ban, this week’s announcement was an important step. But there is a long way to go.

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