I remember being shocked when I first learned that women in Saudi Arabia were not allowed to drive. The Saudi government used Islamic interpretation as a reason to justify the discriminatory decision. And, just like many others around the world, I felt the ruling was ridiculous and outdated.
But things are changing.
On June 24, 2018, Saudi women will finally be allowed to drive. And in celebration of this new ruling, Vogue Arabia featured a Saudi princess driving with style on the cover of its June issue, which drew quite a bit of controversy to the magazine.
Before getting into the whole magazine controversy mess, we should ask why driving was forbidden for Saudi women in the first place.
According to the government’s logic (mainly based on a strict form of literalist Islam called wahhabism), women must have male family members (i.e., husband, father, son, uncle, or any man in their family that they cannot marry) accompany them when they are out of the house. This is based on a male-centric, patriarchal idea that women always need protection.
It should in fact be noted that Saudi Arabia is the only Muslim-majority nation where women aren’t allowed to drive.
Saudi is known for keeping men and women separate in public spaces. In the years I spent living in Kuwait, a small Muslim monarchy bordering Saudi Arabia, I heard ludicrous justifications for the law. They’re actually so incredibly ridiculous that some are even amusing. In fact, one actual excuse was that women couldn’t drive because the speed bumps on the road would send vibrations to the woman’s vagina and cause sexual stimulation, leaving the female driver sex-crazed and harming her ovaries.
The excuses were beyond logic, absolutely distasteful and degrading to women, and eons away from the truth of what Islam preaches about women’s rights. It should, in fact, be noted that Saudi Arabia is the only Muslim-majority nation where women aren’t allowed to drive.
Of course, where there’s oppression, there’s dissent. And women in Saudi Arabia had been protesting for their right to drive years before the Vogue Arabia story. In 1990, the first protest was organized and attended by 47 women in Riyadh where some Saudi women were arrested and others lost their jobs. The fight continued, and in 2011, Manal al-Sharif was arrested for posting a video of her driving on YouTube. In 2014, activist Loujain Hathloul was arrested for driving across the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia border in protest. She was arrested and detained for 73 days.
In September of 2017, King Salman finally issued a decree to let women drive. Women in Saudi Arabia and people around the world celebrated the decision. And the face plastered in the celebration of the Kingdom’s revelation was that of Princess Hayfa Bint Abdullah Al Saud who, according to Vogue, “is redefining the boundaries of what it means to be a Saudi woman.”
Here’s where it gets interesting. First, since May 15, 2018, seven women of the Human Rights Watch activist group were detained and ridiculed after fighting for the removal of the male guardianship system; for driving while female in Saudi Arabia. Many of them, unsure of when they might be released, were persecuted and labelled “traitors” for doing the very thing that got celebrates Princess Hayfa on the cover of Vogue Arabia: driving.
Second, this fight for the laws to change in order to allow women to drive came way before Vogue Arabia’s romanticized cover. And the honest truth is that this fight for equality wasn’t led by a glamorized, leather-gloved Princess driving a red convertible in the desert. It was led by the average Saudi woman: mothers, students, activists. The “driving force” behind any progressive law to allow Saudi women to drive is the average Saudi woman; don’t get it twisted.
While they have plans to reform their old ways by 2030 under the rule of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, we have to ask, will these new laws be applicable to the average Saudi woman as well?
The real question to ask is whether Saudi Arabia is really changing. Are they finally reaching a level where women have laws protecting their rights? Will those laws be applied when appropriate? Will women be allowed to travel without the permission of their young sons? Will they be allowed to drive without the scrutiny of men (and women who perpetuate the discrimination against their own sisters)?
Saudi Arabia holds a reputation for being a closed society. While they have plans to reform their old ways by 2030 under the rule of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, we have to ask, will these new laws be applicable to the average Saudi woman as well?
Only time will tell. What we do know know is that there are still many activities that Saudi men can do that Saudi women cannot. Women cannot request trials or request medical treatment without the approval of their male guardians. Women cannot have custody of their children when the children are older. Women are still subjected to sexism and inequality. There’s still a long way to go for our sisters in Saudi. I stand in solidarity as they fight for their rights – especially those women who are not part of the royal family, who are not protected by privilege, and have so more to lose.