Saturday 26 May 2018

Saudi women driving reform hope this is just the beginning

A Saudi woman drives her car in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah on Thursday after the historic decision that makes the Gulf kingdom the last country in the world to permit women behind the wheel. Photo: Getty Images
A Saudi woman drives her car in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah on Thursday after the historic decision that makes the Gulf kingdom the last country in the world to permit women behind the wheel. Photo: Getty Images

Mary Fitzgerald

When news broke on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia had announced it would finally allow women to drive, I thought of Fawziah al-Bakr.

A Saudi university professor, she was one of 47 women who took part in the kingdom's first protest against the driving ban in 1990. Their act of protest was a simple one: they drove in convoy around the Saudi capital, Riyadh, one afternoon.

Saudi women speak on phones in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo: Reuters
Saudi women speak on phones in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo: Reuters

But the consequences were severe: they spent that night in prison, many lost their jobs and they were denounced publicly as immoral.

When I met Fawziah in Riyadh some years ago, she told me the women known as the 'ex-drivers' still dealt with a lingering stigma that had hampered their careers. But she was defiant: "This is a price that has to be paid for our struggle … I have never regretted taking part."

For Fawziah and other Saudi women like her, this week's decision to allow women to drive was a hard-won victory and another step towards achieving the broader rights they have long dreamt of.

Saudi Arabia was not simply the only country in the world where women could not drive - apart from areas under Isil or Taliban control - it is also a nation where a woman cannot travel abroad, work, marry or appear in court without permission from a male "guardian", usually her father or husband and sometimes even a son.

While the kingdom officially cleaves to an interpretation of Islamic law that insists on a strict code of separation between the sexes and requires a male guardian for women of all ages, implementation of the so-called 'guardianship laws" has loosened in recent years.

Saudi officials this week said women would be able to get a driver's licence without having to ask permission of their male guardian.

Whenever I discussed the driving ban with Saudi men and women who supported it, their responses said much about anxieties over the erosion of what they viewed as traditional values.

Some officials and clerics agreed that Islam does not forbid women from driving but argued that women are vulnerable when alone in cars. One young man told me Riyadh's endless traffic jams would be much worse if women were allowed drive.

Another man told me it could lead to immoral behaviour and another insisted it would make the kingdom's already high rate of traffic accidents much worse.

I met several women who were happy with the status quo and others who argued that there were bigger battles to be fought, such as tackling the guardianship laws.

Unsurprisingly, Saudi activists are now turning their focus on pushing back those laws. Celebrating the ending of the driving ban, Manal al-Sharif whose YouTube video of herself driving went viral in 2011, said her next campaign would be to overturn such restrictions on the lives of Saudi women.

Change in the kingdom comes slow - due, many Saudi women argue, to deep-rooted cultural norms that have less to do with religion than rigid customs that grew out of the harsh desert life - but something of a momentum appears to be gathering in recent years.

The king's 32-year-old son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is considered a reformer in the making and he has talked of the need to steer the kingdom's economy and society to better fit global realities.

In 2015, women were given the right to vote and run for seats in local council elections. A younger generation of Saudi women is emerging that is more educated, confident and ambitious than before. "Women are getting braver and more opinionated. They are not afraid to say what they think," one woman who works in a major Riyadh bank told me.

Unprecedented numbers of Saudi women are studying overseas - including in Ireland - under a national scholarship programme aimed at opening young Saudis up to the world. A growing number of women are entering the workplace in the kingdom, making waves in several sectors including government and finance.

When I met Raha Moharrak, who became - at 27 years old - the first Saudi women to climb Everest a couple of years ago, she told me she was passionate about advocating for access to sport for girls in the kingdom.

Many reform-minded Saudi women refer to the Koran and other holy texts to argue that the economic, religious and political rights they seek were enjoyed by women at the time of Muhammad. They say that makes the push for change more palatable to those who are more conservative.

"Change in our country usually comes in little steps but the lifting of the driving ban is a great leap forward," one young Saudi woman told me this week.

"It gives us hope that much more can be within our grasp."

Irish Independent

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