Driving Miss. Saudi | Sarah Stook

It’s happened.

By royal decree (doesn’t that sound like something out of a story), King Salman of Saudi Arabia has allowed women to obtain a drivers license, finally allowing them to drive legally. It’s a great victory, yes: but I have to be a little cynical here.

There has never actually been a law against women driving, but they’ve always been stopped when they are seen tearing along the roads of the oil-rich Arab nation. For years, the world has watched as women are led away in handcuffs after making the brave decision to get behind the wheel. These women are arrested, they are tortured, and sometimes they are imprisoned. Others were ‘kindly’ let go, but their names were blacklisted, their families warned and their jobs taken from them. Welcome to Saudi Arabia, ladies and gentlemen.

Progress has been coming for years in Saudi Arabia, even in its baby steps. In 2013, domestic violence was finally criminalised, even if the punishment- only a fine and a year in prison- are very low by our Western standards. In 2015, women finally achieved suffrage. Of course, these are through municipal elections, but that is a huge step. Now the only country that prevents voting based on gender alone is the Vatican, and only Cardinals can vote there anywhere. Women could even run for office, even though it was made unusually difficult for them compared to the men.

These women will not have to sit on segregated transport, or have to get their mahram to walk them to work. Women are often harassed in Saudi Arabia, and it is a shame that it is only driving that will protect them, and not the legislation that protects me as I walk in the streets. That is not to say it will have an immediate effect- the news has said the driving ban will not immediately be lifted, or that they will be allowed to drive without a guardian in the front seat with them. Currently, Saudi Arabia lacks the infrastructure in which to drive women, as all driving instructors are men- these women will not be allowed to be in close proximity to them due to social norms. If they are to train women, it will take a long while to get enough to make an impact.

Reasons for preventing women from driving in Saudi Arabia varied- it requires their faces to be uncovered, they might be encouraged to become adulterers or it might teach them to be (gasp) independent from men. One cleric even said that is stopped their ovaries from working (yes, that is an actual statement).

Driving is liberation. In the UK, it may not seem that way, but it is.

King Salman, for all of his other faults, has made a genuine effort to reform women’s rights in the conservative Islamic kingdom. Earlier this year, he decreed that women did not need male permission to access government run medical care and education, so long as it was in line with the country’s strict interpretation of Sharia Law. We have watched Saudi women be allowed to partake in PE at school and to participate in the Olympics. That may seem laughable- most of us haven’t done PE since school, and I don’t think anyone reading this has participated in the Olympics (if you have- well done), but in a country with sportswomen such as Jessica Ennis-Hill and Nicola Adams, it’s amazing to think this is new.

We have come a long way from the country that occupied the news over ten years ago when a tragic event occurred. In 2002, a fire spread at a girl’s school in the holy city of Mecca. Those who rushed out were forced back in by the members of the religious police, who were worried about indecency should the uncovered girls be met by male emergency services. They went so far as to even bar the doors so they could not exit. As a result, girls died. Yes, the state-sanctioned religious police consciously let girls die because they weren’t covered.

Let that sink in if you believe that women driving isn’t a huge step. This is autonomy for these women, something that they have been denied for so long.

Being cynical, however, is key. Oil is becoming less popular- even though it undeniably makes the world go round, countries around the world are now turning to alternative forms of energy. Soon enough, the oil reserves will run out, meaning Saudi Arabia will lose its key card. If we are going to be honest, the sole reason why Saudi Arabia has gotten away with so much, from bombing Yemen to bits to oppressing everyone from women to gays to foreign workers, is because it’s oil central. They know that they have to do something. Recently, they announced new beaches that would not be impacted by Sharia Law- well, women can wear bikinis (yay *rolls eyes*), perfect for holiday destinations (I think not). They’re encouraging young Saudis into work, who are generally unemployed due to wealth and them not wanting to do the simplest jobs. This also kills two birds with one stone, as it weans the country off its high reliance on foreign workers from poorer countries (foreign workers make up 33% of the people).

So women driving, hey? That helps the economy- it makes them more mobile and there are new types of jobs for them. Previously, most working women had drivers, but the high cost ate up most of their salary, as rent does in certain cities, so they just decided to stay home. One man even encouraged others to harass women to get them to quit their jobs. Of course, harassment is prevalent, but the obstacle of driving is no longer there- or at least it won’t be there. You have to hand it to the King, he knows how to make it look super progressive. Quite honestly, whilst I believe the new King is trying to reform things for the better- apart from, ya know, bombing Yemen and letting internet critics be cruelly lashed- it seems to me, more than anything, that this was addressed purely due to economic value. Driving is an economic benefit to the country in which it happens, from allowing mobility in jobs to payment of road tax.

I do want to be happy for them, and I am. When the news popped up on my Twitter feed, I actually genuinely smiled because the news was amazing to hear. It made me feel warm to know that women were getting a leg up, and that it makes it a better world. In a country where we have a female PM, the right to vote and drive amongst other opportunities, it’s easy to forget the troubles of women thousands and thousands of miles away. Over the years, it’s been amazing to watch women arrive at the ballot box, to be able to work and now to drive.

Sadly, there is still so much to be done- women are still oppressed, they must be supervised by their guardians and given permission to basic activities, they are not allowed to dress as they wish, nor will they ever get the chance to achieve what women like Theresa May, Julia Gillard and Benazir Bhutto have. The domestic workers, often from the Philippines and other poorer country, are exploited in the most horrible ways. Their passports are taken from them; they rarely see the children they are sending money back to, and are often sexually abuse by their male employees, the wives either permitting it or powerless to do something. I could list a thousand more things.

We of course should thank King Salman in the same way we do the Parliamentarians who voted for the 1918 Representation of the People Act- thank you for actually doing the right thing. Who we must thank, the most, is the women of Saudi Arabia. Most do not know the names of Saudi heroines such as Manal al-Sharif, who spearheaded the driving protests, but we should know them tonight. Without the women who risked nearly everything in a country where even most females are against rights for themselves, we would have gotten nowhere, even with international pressure.

This is their victory, as well as ours- it’s a victory for women today.

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