Saudi Arabia: A landmark moment as women ‘legally’ take the drivers’ seat     

Allowing women to drive is a major social change in the Kingdom, where women have long been kept out of public life and limited to certain professions

Saudi Arabia: A landmark moment as women ‘legally’ take the drivers’ seat      
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Saeed Haider

The Saudi Government has eventually lifted the decades-old ban on women driving effective June 24.

Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan were only two countries in recent times which had put a ban on women driving.

The world community in general and Saudis in particular have welcomed the move with many businessmen calling it a “one giant leap”. Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, leading Saudi businessman who until recently was locked in Carlton Ritz Hotel, Riyadh by the government of King Salman in a drive to eradicate corruption, has called it “a cultural revolution in progress in Saudi Arabia”.

Although fewer driving licences have been issued to women in the cities of Riyadh, Jeddah, Dhahran, Makkah region, and Madinah as the government is still giving final touches to logistics for issuing driving licence at mass level to those who are beginners— be it Saudi nationals or foreigners. Until recently the driving licences have been issued only to those women who possess driving license of other countries whose driving licence is acceptable in the Kingdom like the United States.

Sociologists and political analysts consider the start of women’s driving as a symbol of cultural revolution in the Kingdom

The government has already issued guideline and procedure for issuance of driving license to women. It has set up driving schools for beginners where driving instructors are women from Europe and other Middle Eastern countries. It is worth mentioning here that as per GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) convention each member state will accept driving license of other member states. As a result women who hold UAE or Bahraini drivers licence are legally allowed to drive light vehicle in the Kingdom.

Sociologists and political analysts consider the start of women’s driving as a symbol of cultural revolution in the Kingdom and they rightly give the credit for liberalisation to the Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, popularly known as MBS who has introduced a series of reforms covering entire Saudi Society with a focus on female reforms.

Historically women in Saudi Arabia enjoyed fewer rights. They were not allowed to travel without their guardian (mehram). Their entry was banned in sports stadium and they were not to be mixed in all men’s gathering. Many religious leaders as well as businessmen and social reformist admitted that such restrictions were essentially legacy of Arab tradition and has nothing to do with religion. Interestingly not too many people know that ironically this orthodoxy or conservatism was restricted to the urban population. The women in rural Saudi Arabia were leading far more liberal life even at the peak of restrictions. Rural women were driving vehicles within the parameters of their villages and even indulging in trade.

Allowing women to drive is a major social change in Saudi Arabia, where women have long been kept out of public life and limited to certain professions. This has begun to change in recent years, with more young Saudi women than men graduating from universities and many women working in fields that they used to be locked out.

Prince Mohammad Bin Salman in one of his messages has explicitly said that the restrictions and conservatism was a comparatively recent phenomenon. Saudi Arabia until early ‘70s was a liberal society. Late ‘70s and early ‘80s saw a gradual shift to conservative traditions with garb of religion.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and subsequent war in 1990-91 for the liberation of Kuwait provided an exposure to Saudi Society. Arrival of international media gave courage to women to take up their demand and as a result in November 1990 nearly 47 women, mainly from big businesses took part in dignified protest march on cars in capital Riyadh. All 47 were arrested, putting a temporary end to the movement.

However voices of dissent have been heard from time to time against the ban on driving by women. Most notable among them is that of journalist and women’s right activist, Manal al-Sharif. In June 2011, Sharif along with Najla Hariri and about hundred women took part in the first campaigns “Women2Drive” and “I Will Drive My Own Car”. Many were arrested and jailed. One woman’s sentence of 10 lashes was revoked only after the King intervened. It was the largest mass action since November 1990.

In June 2012 again, Sharif and Hariri called upon women with international driving licences to flout the ban. At the same time in a deeply Islamic society, they have to make sure they do it respectfully, wearing the legally required full Islamic dress and displaying a picture of the king.

Late King Abdullah was sympathetic to women’s demand and he initiated several reforms. He ordered to open up jobs in different sectors for women. As a result women who were previously allowed only to work as teachers or doctors, today are on the board of large corporate and even public sector unit like Saudi Aramco and Airport Authority.

But the true champion of women’s emancipation and harbinger of social revolution in the country undoubtedly is Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who has ordered lifting of ban on women’s driving and a number of other changes that seek to diversify the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy and improve life for Saudis.

Many Saudis have applauded what they say are efforts to make life in their ultraconservative kingdom more like life elsewhere.

Allowing women to drive is a major social change in Saudi Arabia, where women have long been kept out of public life and limited to certain professions. This has begun to change in recent years, with more young Saudi women than men graduating from universities and many women working in fields that they used to be locked out.

It is tragic that despite such a gigantic reformist movement launched by The Crown Prince himself who wants to accelerate the progress of the country not just financially but socially, there is a group of conservatives who oppose all such reforms, especially the driving.

Their plea is that Saudi Society is still not ready and that women will not be safe on Saudi roads. They tend to forget that Saudi Society continues to be comparatively crime free with strong deterrents and a self-dependent woman is much safer than a dependent woman. Yes, initially Many Saudi conservatives will suffer from culture shock but gradually they will accept women’s driving as a way of life the way they have accepted end of Guardianship and entry of women in almost every sector and their major role in nation building.

This story was updated on June 24, 9.30 am to reflect a change in the headline

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Published: 23 Jun 2018, 10:01 AM