Women can now drive in Saudi Arabia. Just let that sink in. As a Muslim-American woman, I learned how to drive when I was 16 and obtained my license that same year. There are Saudi Arabian women who have lived much longer than I who were never capable of driving themselves to the store or to see a friend. Being able to transport yourself from one place to another is a fundamental tool for independence. Needing to rely on a man, his availability and discretion for such a simple thing minimized the capabilities of Saudi Arabian women and undermined their freedom.
It was announced illegal for Saudi women to drive in 1990, adding to the country’s infamous rep as a kingdom of highly conservative, sexist individuals. Now, lifting the ban in 2017 sends a greater message to the world and its population that just giving the green light for women to drive. It sends a message that Muslim women, even as conservatives, have a right to their own lives and what they choose to do with it. It is an enormous step in the right direction.
While women around the globe celebrate this achievement, some are still hesitant. The perception of women driving and gaining independence is not supported by all and the majority of authority figures within Saudi Arabia are still male. Women are unsure as to how they will be treated should there be conflicts, accidents or general issues related to their driving.
But many women would rather have the right to drive and the problems that come with it than to be suppressed and unable to have this independence.
Maddinah Khan is a 20-year-old whose parents were born and raised in Saudi Arabia. Khan’s mother lived there until she was 30. Her mother, Maira, remembers what it was like growing up without being able to drive and how that impacted her family dynamic. “My mother noticed that my grandmother already had to ask my grandfather for final approval on many decisions, it made it even harder for her when if they disagreed,” she recalls. “My father got the final say because he was the only one who could drive amongst them. Hiring a driver was too much for my grandmother, as my grandfather would keep tabs on the finances and if there was expense just for driving services, he would be so angry.”
Essentially, Maira’s life was constantly limited by her father’s decisions and her mother’s inability to be an equal in their marriage. Any decision she made had to be approved by her husband since he was the only one who had a right to physically go from one place to another.
Maddinah’s family is just one of many who have been restricted by the now overturned rule. Women who have lived through the driving ban in Saudi Arabia are beyond happy to see real change taking place. Driving in Saudi represents so much more than just being able to go from one place to another-it means women who work jobs and earn salaries no longer have to spend a portion of their salaries on simply being driven to and from work. It means another step toward decreasing the gender inequality gap between men and women. If the leaders in Saudi Arabia, a country known to be one of the most restrictive of women’s rights, can understand the importance of women and what they are capable of then the rest of the world can, too.
This action should chip away at some of the misunderstood notions people foster from conflating Saudi Arabia’s laws with Sharia law or Islam. Because women are still not permitted to enter Saudi Arabia without a specific male family figure, many people assume that it’s because Islam implicates men have a greater status than women. Others think that because of the way women dress in Saudi Arabia (common dress includes burqas, niqabs or abayas), that women are constantly oppressed and subjected to how men treat them for Islamic reasons. The culture and laws of a country do not necessarily mirror the religion that is shared by its constituents. Every country has its own traditions, perceptions and belief systems. Religion is an entirely different application of belief.
We applaud you, Saudi Arabia, and this rudimentary step forward. We are waiting and watching to see how you liberate your talented, independent, brilliant and creative women.