Is it a Big Deal that Saudi Women will be Allowed to Drive?

Thanks to a royal decree, Saudi women will be allowed to drive cars and motorbikes beginning in June this year. The decision to give the women in Saudi Arabia the right to drive was announced in September 2017 by King Salman and is considered a major step in the course of the normalisation of life in Saudi Arabia, a highly-conservative kingdom in which women have very limited rights and almost no representation in major decision-makings.

A patriarchal society in which women are sometimes even treated as commodities with no role to play in social and political walks of life, Saudi Arabia has been incomprehensibly resistant to such changes as giving women the right to drive.

Saudi Arabia is ranked 138th out of 144 countries by the World Economic Forum in the 2017 edition of the Global Gender Gap Report, which means women are extremely marginalised and their rights remain unattained and the society is highly polarized in favour of men, whether in education, healthcare or job opportunities.

In February 2018, Tamadur bint Youssef Al Ramah was appointed Deputy Labour Minister, which was seen as a very fundamental and unprecedented decision by King Salman. A woman was assigned to a mid-ranking government position. The political participation of women is still too insubstantial to be measured.

There have been major campaigns and a longstanding struggle between women activists and the kingdom authorities over the women’s right to drive cars and travel abroad without being accompanied by their “guardians,” among other dreams that were not realised.

It mostly started in 2007 with Wajeha al-Huwaider, a Saudi activist and writer who founded an association for protecting and defending the rights of women to drive in the streets of Saudi Arabia. On the International Women’s Day, she posted on Youtube a video of herself driving a car while describing the injustice of the ban on the Saudi women’s right to drive. Similar protests in 1990 had shown the dissatisfaction of Saudi women, dozens of whom were arrested for “circling Riyadh in cars.”

However, it seems that the new Saudi Crown Prince is intent on giving in to some moderation and moves towards what can be called “de-militarisation of life” in Saudi Arabia, as it grapples with the militaristic ambitions of some of its leaders who involuntarily involve their people and their taxes in conflicts in Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere in the region.

At least the permission given to the Saudi women to drive their cars without being branded criminal or socially outcast means the Saudi authorities are aware of the plagues of continued undue pressure on half of their population and have made a decision to provide more leeway so that a dynamic, young and aspiring population is not crushed on a daily basis, even to realize their most basic desire such as driving.

For those American citizens who find the callous gun laws unjustifiable and the disposability of their youths and children who perish in schools at the hands of “loners” with some mental illness unacceptable, the introduction of a law which gives the women the right to drive might not seem like a major change. However, for the Saudi women who are at least portrayed as being the most suppressed women in the world, along with Iranian and Afghan women, this is a revolution.

Saudi Arabia is a society in which there are many entrepreneurial youths, bright-minded women and creative thinkers who are underrepresented and who sometimes decide voluntarily to keep silent instead of speaking out and making things worse.

In 2016, I met Mashail Bakolka at the American Middle Eastern Network for Dialog at Stanford (AMENDS) 2016 summit. At that time, she was an undergraduate Electrical and Computer Engineering student at Effat University and was selected as a Google Student Ambassador for the MENA region during the academic year 2014-2015 and worked as a liaison officer connecting Google and her university campus. She had a deep interest in green nanotechnology and was recognised for her outstanding academic and non-academic achievements. I remember talking to her in person, extending apologies to her, on behalf of my people, for what her people believe was continued interference in the internal affairs of Saudi Arabia by Iran. And I remember I admitted to her that many of what people from my country do during the annual pilgrimage rites is not acceptable and should change.

Saudi Arabia is a society that will do better with change and has a young population with huge potentials that need to be activated and harnessed for the common good of its people and the world. Although granting the Saudi women the overdue right to drive cars and bikes in 2018 resembles the suffrage rights which women in Australian colonies and western U.S. states won in the late 19th century, this country can head in better directions and improve its social indicators should its leaders come to this much-needed realisation that their artifact is a society with gaps that need to be filled and a huge amount of conservatism and myopia that is blocking the smooth progress of its different sectors: economy, education, labour, military and democratic institutions.

Although the Saudi government continues to buy arms and ballistic missiles en masse without being under any international inspection, it cannot hide the fact that life in the 21st century Saudi Arabia is not representative of the dynamism of its international relations.