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Middle East

Saudi Arabia allows women to drive: sign of a deeper evolution?

media A woman drives a car in Saudi Arabia Reuters/Faisal Al Nasser

Saudi Arabia’s leaders announced late on Tuesday they will grant women the right to drive. The move marks a significant expansion of women’s rights, but observers are divided on whether it indicates a deeper shift in the conservative Gulf kingdom.

Until now, Saudi Arabia has been the only country in the world that banned women from holding driver’s licences.

Activists who have been pushing for driving rights since 1990 see the decree as a result not just of their campaigns, but of wider reforms happening in the leadership.

“Now women are everywhere, workwise, education-wise, and the driving was just a simple matter,” says early women’s rights campaigner Fowziya al Bakr, a professor at the college of education at King Saud University in Riyadh.

“We know the conservatives are there, but it’s okay,” al Bakr says of the decree’s detractors. “The decree does not specify that every woman has to get their licence, so if you want to do it, the government is ready support you, but if you think it’s religiously inappropriate, then don’t. It’s freedom of choice.”

Saudi law enforces the strict form of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism, obliging women have to adhere to strict dress codes, avoid associating with men outside their families and have permission from a male guardian to travel, work or access health care.

While the right to drive represents a breakthrough for women’s rights, some point out that even its implementation will be marked by gender segregation.

“As we are in a society that is sexually segregated, they have to create facilities for women to learn how to drive and they have to train policemen to interact with them,” says French feminist activist Annie Sugier, who has worked with Saudi women with her organisation, Clef.

“But at least it demonstrates that the criticism and pressure on Saudi Arabia is having some impact.”

Changes in the country’s oil-based economy, as well as the appearance of new technologies, are affecting young Saudis’ perception of their future direction.

“We have a young population who are exposed to social media and travelling, who need education, training and jobs,” Fowziya al Bakr says of a growing demographic group eyeing up the country’s future.

“Also, oil prices are going down, and at the same time anyway oil will lose its value because the whole world is going to clean alternatives.”

At the same time, the Wahhabi ideology has been present in the country for close to three hundred years, and others doubt that the foundations of Saudi society are changing in a significant way.

“Only recently, the American government has pressured Saudi Arabia to re-edit its literature on Wahhabism that is being sent to the West, and I think this is probably one of the reasons that the Saudi government is looking at having a better image,” says Irfan Al Alawi, executive director of the Mecca-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation.

“The new crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, with his 2030 Vision, is trying to change the image of Saudi Arabia, but he is not changing the ideology of Wahhabism.”

 

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