Last week, King Salman announced through royal decree that the long-standing ban prohibiting women from driving in Saudi Arabia will be lifted by 24th June 2018. Saudi Arabia is currently the only country in the world where women cannot legally drive; a law which has received widespread condemnation and has become a signifier across the globe of the country’s strict patriarchal regime.
The news of the ban being lifted has been much anticipated and celebrated, especially by the brave activists who have been fighting tirelessly for years to change the law; jeopardising their own freedoms in the process. One such activist, Manal al-Sharif, who galvanised the women’s right to drive campaign after being detained for filming herself behind the wheel, made an emotional statement on social media:
You want a statement here is one: “Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop” #Women2Drive ❤️
— منال مسعود الشريف (@manal_alsharif) September 26, 2017
There is no doubt that this decree is a huge step forward for women’s rights in the notoriously conservative region and it has been deeply moving to witness the outpouring of joy and a brief moment of respite across social media. Activists are now witnessing the culmination of their efforts over the years and the foundation for change is starting to emerge. However, the attitudes which have given rise to and emanate from the system cannot change overnight and whether this ruling marks a monumental shift in the consciousness of the Saudi Arabia is still murky territory.
For those who uphold the conservative values of the state and its strict interpretation of religious doctrine, the lifting of the driving ban has been met with resistance. On the eve of the landmark announcement, one of the top trending hashtags on Saudi Arabia’s twitter feed was “The women of my house won’t drive.”. This unfortunately demonstrates that there is a lot of work to be done to change people’s hearts and minds, which the lifting of a law can’t immediately solve.
This outlook is also characterised by the continued enforcement of the kingdom’s male guardianship system; a binding set of regulations which prevent women from being able to truly govern their own lives. In this way, women are obligated to gain the permission of a male guardian in order to study or travel outside the country, start their own business, get married or even leave prison. There has been no official comment as of yet from Saudi officials as to whether the lifting of the driving ban marks the start of a U-Turn on these types of policies, which dominate the daily lives of Saudi women. However, Saudi Ambassador Prince Khalid bin Salman, has stated the new driving procedures will ensure that women will be able to drive alone and apply for their licenses without gaining permission from their male guardians.
Although the practicalities of the implementation of this ruling will be discussed by a new specialised committee in the next 30 days, this detail, if true, has the potential to be hugely significant. If this comes to fruition, it would mark a loosening of a facet of guardianship legislation; setting a precedent which holds a mirror up to the guardianship system itself. The inconsistency of allowing women to drive without a male guardian, but still needing the permission of a guardian to travel or start a business is stark. The example set by this ruling sparks hope that it will act as a catalyst for the undermining of the guardianship system altogether.
Moreover, the recent news of a mixed audience being permitted to celebrate in the national stadium, and the proposal of new legislation criminalising sexual harassment, spells promising change for the kingdom. Equality for the women of Saudi Arabia feels like it is inching closer, but it is not a given. At JAN Trust we believe it is possible to celebrate these victories yet still acknowledge that there is much work to be done to ensure that societal attitudes are changed and that women’s rights are fully enshrined in law. For those of us witnessing this moment in history, it is vital to not get complacent and continue to support and fight for the rights of women in the UK, Saudi Arabia and around the world.