UPDATE: On 24 June, Saudi Arabian women celebrated the official lifting of the ban prohibiting women behind the wheel with women taking to the streets to drive for the first time.
The auspicious occasion was marked with a social media celebration of women posting images of themselves in the driver’s seat, with Snapchat even releasing a specialised ‘women driving’ filter.
The ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia is now history. 5 minutes ago, Saudi women hit the roads legally for the first time. pic.twitter.com/yYGbwjquO1
— Mohammed Khalid Alyahya (@7yhy) June 23, 2018
The only cloud weighing over the historical moment is the activists and feminists still unjustly imprisoned for lobbying against the ban. These women have been fighting for the end of the ban for decades, and without them, the resistance to the Kingdom’s human rights violations wouldn’t be possible.
Not only have human rights activists been detained since May, but most women in Saudi Arabia are still controlled by a conservative patriarchy that limits their access to independence, as the male guardianship policy is still in effect. In all likelihood, only privileged women will enjoy the freedom of independence, and the issue of gender equality is still very much on the horizon.
It's good news for women in #SaudiArabia as the driving ban was now lifted. Congrats to the women's rights activists who tirelessly fought to make it happen. But many of them are still in prison with terrorism related charges. It's time to release them!
— Greens/EFA in the EU Parliament ? (@GreensEFA) June 25, 2018
‘On a day like this let’s not forget the majority of unlucky women with a guardian who is an obstacle between them and their rights,’ reports ELLE.com. ‘The Saudi women who are driving today are the privileged ones. And until all women are equal, this joy won’t be complete.’
This post was updated on 2018/06/26
Saudi Arabia brings a few ideas to mind. Kingdom. Oil. Luxury cars. Sprawling desert terrain. Empowerment for women? It’s unlikely you’d associate the traditionally conservative Arab state with gender equality, but for the first time in history, women in Saudi Arabia are allowed to drive.
#WATCH: A monumental moment in the history of #SaudiArabia – a video capturing the first time a driving license has been issued to a female in #KSA has gone viral (Video: @saudalzmanan) || https://t.co/3jGI1guGrM pic.twitter.com/TKKttnBWvx
— Arab News (@arabnews) June 4, 2018
Wait…Why were women not allowed to drive in the first place? Saudi Arabia is a hyper-religious society – with conservatives living in the kingdom, claiming that women being behind the wheel is immoral and puts them in danger of sexual harassment and discrimination. According to them, the ban (a policy that’s been in effect since 1932) was in the best interest of women.
In other words, the ban on driving was a not so subtle way of policing women and their movements.
But things in Saudi Arabia are finally changing
The #Women2Drive movement began 28 years ago when almost 50 women were arrested and stigmatised, with many losing their jobs and passports. The historic moment this year comes after resistance to the ban reached a boiling point with 17 people, most of which were women, being detained by Saudi Arabian authorities for campaigning the right to drive and for protesting the policy.
Saudi Arabia has finally lifted its ban, the only one left of its kind in the world, and Saudi women will be free to drive from 24 June 2018 for the first time ever. Ten women have already been issued with driver’s licenses.
Getting a driver’s license may seem like a small deal but when we unpack why it matters – freedom of movement, independence, autonomy – it becomes less about a ticket to transport and more about why we still need feminism. Women in Saudi Arabia had to rely on male family members or expensive car drivers to get them to work, school or to run errands.
It’s worth noting that just because a country is different to our prescribed ideas of what a society should look like, with different rules, religion, and culture, doesn’t mean we should project our own, often Western, ideas of what democracy should look like.
As Princess Hayfa bint Abdullah Al Saud – who caused controversy by posing in a Mercedes-Benz sports car to celebrate the reform – told Arabian Vogue, ‘It is easy to comment on other people’s societies and think that your own society is superior, but the Western world must remember that each country is specific and unique.’
Vogue Arabia's June issue, dedicated to “the trailblazing women of #SaudiArabia”, has been widely criticised for featuring royals like Hayfa bint Abdullah & lauding the reforms of #MBS, while last month 11 #WomensRights campaigners were arrested in the Kingdom for their activism. pic.twitter.com/1HlVIjarMr
— Pink Jinn (@pink_jinn) June 4, 2018
‘We have strengths and weaknesses but, invariably, it’s our culture, and it’s better to try to understand it than to judge it.’
What’s next for the kingdom?
Many of the women human rights defenders who campaigned for #Women2Drive in #SaudiArabia have been detained by authorities, and are being smeared as traitors by Saudi media. Help get them released→https://t.co/X6d8y7xghh pic.twitter.com/1ch6YRMKYx
— AmnestyCanada (@AmnestyNow) May 29, 2018
The reform is one small step for gender equality, but the push for increased civil rights in Saudi Arabia still continues. Along with the people detained for ‘undermining security’ when calling for the lift of the ban, activists also called for an end to the guardianship policy which gives male relatives the power to decide whether women travel abroad and whom they marry.
Gender segregation is also a massive issue in the kingdom, with virtually all spaces being divided with separate entrances and facilities for men and women – sometimes women are denied entrance altogether.
So while Saudi Arabia may be one of the most hostile environments for women, there’s a mental shift happening towards equipping women with the skills and resources they need to navigate their world.
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