Saudi Arabia announced on September 26th that they will soon permit women to drive. This announcement ends a longstanding policy within the Saudi kingdom. The change will be effective as June of 2018, for women to obtain driving licenses.
Before the royal decree in Saudi Arabia, for women to travel to work and other local areas would need a male driver such as a husband, father, son or a hired driver to get her to her destination. For years women had to rely on a male for assistance to get to work or school, which often put them at a disadvantage, since being able to drive promotes independence and women in the work place.
The effort to break the ban on women driving has been underway for sometime. The Women to Drive movement was a campaign by Saudi women who prompted demonstrations on women’s rights to drive. Beginning in the 1990’s, 47 Saudi women participated in the kingdoms first protest against the ban to drive. These women drove around Riyadh, and were arrested, lost their passports and some their jobs. In 2011, during the Arab Spring some women organized an intensive driving campaign in June where at least 70 women were documented and one woman was sentenced to 10 lashes as punishment, which was later revoked. The #women2drive movement has been very vocal over the years to gain access to driving rights for women.
The decision was condemned by Saudi traditionalists on social media as well by some members of Saudi “ulema”, the group of recognized Islamic scholars. The decision to loosen the law on women driving is viewed as part of a larger effort by the current crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to relax some of the country’s strict social laws.
On Saturday September 23rd, Saudi Arabia also allowed women into the national stadium for the first time as it launched celebrations to make the 87th anniversary of its founding. Women had to sit in a separate area from men, as well as enter through a separate gate to the stadium but, hundreds of women attended the event in the capital Riyadh. A public event such as this one is normally forbidden under Sharia law due to the public segregation of sexes.
Two years ago the Saudi government launched its Vision 2030 program. Vision 2030 is a long-term blueprint program of economic and social reforms designed to modernize Saudi Arabia and wean off its reliance on oil revenue. Allowing for more relaxation on social reform programs in regards to women.
Women in the Saudi Arabia have very few rights. In 2015 for the first time, they were allowed to vote in local municipal elections. They also can campaign for public office, however, women were not allowed to speak to male voters and couldn’t have both men and women working in their campaign offices. In 2015, 17 women were elected to local municipal positions. Women can attain college. They can also play sports and compete in the Olympics, which in 2016 Saudi Arabia sent four women to play.
The list of restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia is extensive and includes the inability to marry, divorce, travel, open a bank account, get a job, or have specific surgeries without the permission of their male guardians. Guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia govern nearly every aspect of a woman’s life.
Toward the end of 1979, the Great Mosque of Mecca was overrun by a group of jihadis under Juhayman al-Otaybi, who challenged the house of Saud’s legitimacy over its ties to the west. Following the attack the kingdom undertook stricter enforcement of sharia law, in part to pacify the criticism that led to the Grand Mosque siege. This led to the 1980 establishment of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, known as the Mutawiyin, who were responsible for the enforcement of Sharia laws, including guardianship laws. In April of 2016, the Saudi government reigned in the influence of the Mutawiyin, by removing their authority to independently conduct arrests.
Several other laws that restrict women in Saudi society is that women cannot freely mix with members of the opposite sex, women also cannot go in public without wearing a full-length black abaya, they cannot start their own business, because she needs at least two male sponsors to testify to her character. They also, cannot retain custody of their children if they are divorced, after the age of seven for boys and nine for girls – the children then go to the father. They cannot apply for an ID or passport without permission of their male guardian. A woman cannot eat alone in a restaurant unless they have a separate designated family section with a divider. Finally, they cannot also get a fair hearing in court or receive an equal inheritance. All of these restrictions fall under Sharia law.
Although women have “won” the fight to gain access to driving, they are limited in most other disciplines of life. Saudi government lifting the ban noting that there was no religious justification for it. The council of senior religious scholars, Saudi’s top religious body said the decision to let women drive complies with Islamic law.
Women in Saudi Arabia still have a long way to go in terms of gaining liberties. While this is obviously a very important step for Saudi Arabia, the influence of guardianship laws continues to persist.