Right to drive a win for women in Saudi Arabia
As they are finally allowed to get behind the wheel in a deeply conservative society, the progressive views of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are welcome
Deeply conservative and patriarchal Saudi Arabia has become the last country to allow women to drive. Human rights organisation Amnesty International has rightly hailed the breakthrough as testimony to the bravery of female activists who have been campaigning for years. The world may seem like a better place for it. But the decree issued by King Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud authorising the issuance of driving licences to women from June is not a fait accompli, and activists have not welcomed it unequivocally.
To make putting them behind the wheel really effective, Saudi women have called on the government to also scrap the guardianship law that gives men power over female relatives. Otherwise, they fear, women would still need permission from male relatives to apply for a licence, as they do to obtain a passport.
Saudi Arabia still has some of the world’s tightest restrictions on women under the country’s guardianship system. A male family member, normally the father, husband or brother, must grant permission for study, travel, opening a bank account and other activities. The recent relaxation of perhaps the most egregious requirement – male permission to visit the doctor – marks the increasing loosening of social restrictions under a reform push to adapt to a post-oil era and repair a dismal human rights record.
Hopefully, the lifting of the driving ban is a sign of real progress. But that cannot be taken for granted, given the views of the clergy and some men. Conservative clerics have described women driving as “haram” or forbidden, prompting a male Twitter user to ask how something “haram” can suddenly be “halal”. Some clerics claim lifting the ban would damage the ovaries and lead to promiscuity.
The more progressive views of the king’s 32-year-old son and recently promoted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have prevailed so far. He is pushing a more modern image abroad and economic development at home. In that regard the liberation of women drivers is seen as a boost to the economy at a time of low oil prices by increasing their participation. For the sake of Saudi women, long may he remain the power behind the throne.