A Saudi cleric explained recently why he was against allowing women to drive in the kingdom. When a woman drives, he said in a television interview, her pelvis vibrates, putting pressure on the ovaries. That’s why women in the West have only two or three children, he said: It’s not a matter of family planning, but rather a health issue.
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An official study submitted to the king’s advisory council by a Saudi professor, meanwhile, claimed that countries where women drive have higher rates of rape, drug abuse, adultery, prostitution and children born out of wedlock than countries where they aren't allowed to drive. It goes without saying that Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are barred from driving.
That’s about to change, though, following Tuesday’s announcement that Saudi women will be allowed to drive, starting next year.
For over two decades, women in the kingdom have been battling such statements – in part by sharing images and videos showing women behind the wheel. Even though there is no actual legislation prohibiting women from driving, some have been stopped by police officers, questioned and even jailed. Some report having been sworn at and even threatened by furious citizens for daring to challenge social norms.
But they were not dissuaded, even by harsh punishment. In 2011, Saudi human rights activist Manal al-Sharif led a campaign to overturn the ban. The campaign attracted an enthusiastic response among men and women alike, and proved that Saudi society was ripe for change.
The timing of the change now is no coincidence. Over the years, the Saudi royal court’s concern over the potential reaction of the country’s religious establishment entrenched its discriminatory policy against women, despite a growing understanding that it was damaging the national interest. However, in contrast to the past, the current economic reality is forcing the country’s leadership to take tough decisions to ensure the kingdom’s survival – even if it involves paying a domestic political price.
As reflected in its Vision 2030 economic plan, which was published last year, the top priority is the immediate need to reduce the excessive dependence on oil and diversify the country’s sources of income. That requires a professional local talent pool that can gradually replace foreign workers.
The Saudi leadership recently recognized women as the force that can pave the way toward a new era. Up to now, though, cultural and religious barriers have prevented their integration into the labor market.
Conservative forces exerted heavy pressure to prevent women from working, arguing that it would damage the norms and religious codes of Saudi society. But the greater the burden has become on Saudi males to provide for their families, so the understanding in Saudi society has grown of the necessity of integrating women into the workforce.
Even if many men expressed displeasure at the move, they have also recognized the contribution of an additional salary in families that are struggling to make ends meet.
In a country where public transportation is almost nonexistent, where women are not allowed to travel by taxi and where employing a foreign driver is expensive, the national decision to allow women to work in professions that were previously off-limits to them becomes an empty gesture.
A significant number of women have complained that even though they studied at outstanding universities in the West, they can’t make use of their knowledge and find work commensurate with their skills due to the difficulty of physically getting to their workplace. As long as it was only women who were paying a price, it was possible to stick with this oppressive situation. But once the Saudi economy became increasingly dependent on female personnel, the barriers preventing their integration into the workforce began to crack.
It’s reasonable to assume that the unique personality of Saudi King Salman’s son, Mohammed, who is in practice running the country, played a decisive role in the historic decision. During his brief tenure, the crown prince has proved he is prepared to stretch the limits of social norms and to fight against those undermining the required reforms, whether they are for the good of the country or the regime.
But even if his liberal values helped lift the ban on women driving, it has been economic necessities that ultimately shattered the taboo.
As in previous instances, any progress in the situation of women hasn’t occurred in a vacuum. Instead, it has been a whole set of national and regime interests that have been taken into account.
So, for example, in 2011, the late King Abdullah gave the country’s women the right to vote in municipal elections. Although it was precedent-setting and remarkable, it wasn’t expected to make a real difference to the status of women. Instead, it was used to stem stirring opposition, inspired by the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring.
A sophisticated chess game
Over the years, Saudi women have been pawns in a sophisticated chess game the regime has waged against forces challenging its public prestige. In certain periods, it was the religious establishment that succeeded in tilting policy in its direction, while in recent years liberals and reformists have successfully pushed the royal family to reconsider its attitude toward women.
So far, the regime has managed to navigate the cross-pressures through a broadly based system of compensation to those who have felt they were on the losing side. But it’s not clear if the regime will always be able to rely on this.
The elation that has been expressed on social media and in public since Tuesday’s announcement is testimony to the victory scored by liberal forces – but to some extent, it’s actually an illusion. As long as Saudi women are seen as childlike creatures who cannot distinguish between right and wrong and need the approval of a male relative for every decision they make, the battle is far from over.
The patriarchal system is deeply rooted in Saudi society, providing men with total control over women’s lives. Male supremacy provides fertile ground for vile conduct toward women, primarily physical, sexual and verbal abuse. And even if many men treat female family members with respect and love, that doesn’t negate the existence of an absurd and outrageous situation that women are forced to live with.
Therefore, despite Tuesday’s great achievement, the fight women have been facing has not ended, and they are expected to continue to face a long and winding road until they reach their destination.
One of the interesting questions is how Saudi women will gauge success, and when, from their perspective, the battle will actually be over.
It should be remembered that, in addition to courageous women who are waging an all-out battle against a conservative society, a considerable number of women actually view their efforts as contrary to the principles of Islam and as undermining the foundations of Saudi society.
These women are harshly critical of women who refuse to cover their bodies and faces, and also take them to task in public. Some conservative women claim that Western imperialist forces are behind the efforts at liberalization, which they see as an attempt to split and polarize Saudi society.
Modernization and progress
The struggle for women’s rights is not only about women, but about the nature and identity of the kingdom itself. In its 85 years of existence, Saudi Arabia has been ruled by an ultra-conservative Wahhabi stream of Islam – people who enjoyed the benefits of modernization and progress, but who refused to acknowledge the changes that they entail. In the era of social media and enormous exposure to the West, the power of the Saudi religious establishment has eroded, and its ability to dictate patriarchal patterns of conduct has diminished.
At this stage, it’s too early to predict the consequences of decisions such as allowing women to drive. Nevertheless, it’s clear today that such decisions also have an effect beyond the kingdom’s borders, providing a backwind to millions of women in the Arab world who are still subject to the absolute control of men. It’s a revolution in small steps, sometimes too small, but it is a revolution nonetheless. The time has come to recognize that.
Dr. Michal Yaari is a specialist on Saudi Arabia at Tel Aviv University and the Open University.