Saudi women celebrate driving ban reversal

October 01, 2017
Turning point. A Saudi woman drives her car along a street in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah, on September 27. (AFP)

London - A general sense of jubila­tion was noted across Saudi Arabia with the announcement that women in the kingdom would be permitted to drive, clos­ing one of the most polarising is­sue in Saudi society, and opening numerous possibilities and oppor­tunities for its economy.
Saudi King Salman bin Ab­dulaziz Al Saud issued a royal de­cree on September 26 allowing Saudi women the right to drive for the first time. The news was unex­pected to the point that many Sau­dis dismissed it as a hoax.
“To all who opposed this law and said that it will never happen, here you go. We win ladies!” Yara Albashair wrote on Twitter. Ac­tivist Loujain Hathloul, who had been arrested twice for defying the ban, tweeted: “Thank God.”
“My initial thoughts were this can’t be true and I did not believe it, despite it being on all the news channels,” said Saria Mohsen, a 34-year-old Jeddah-based busi­nesswoman.
“I feel proud, empowered and full of hope for our country and future,” she said, adding that her first car would probably be an SUV.
“I’ve been driving for more than five years, and it’s something I look forward to every time I trav­el,” said Abrar Hamid, a business owner and mother of two. “The fact that I will soon be able to drive in my country makes me feel great and I’m looking forward to more changes.”
She said she was considering getting a Maserati Levante with four-wheel drive.
The decree, which takes effect next June, was not universally well-received. Many male Saudis posted pictures and memes on social media conveying the “dan­gers” of women driving. Some were intended to be light-heart­ed; others were misogynistic and cruel. Ironically, car crash photos used in most memes all involved vehicles driven by men.
There were also flat-out rejec­tions of the reversal, with hashtags such as “the people refuse the driving of women” and “the lady of my house will not drive” trend­ing heavily on social media.
A young man was arrested after posting a video on social media threatening to set fire to women’s cars. The Saudi daily Okaz re­ported the Saudi Interior Ministry received orders to prepare a plan for criminalising harassment. The plan was expected to specify pun­ishments for harassment to act as a deterrent.
The female driving ban is a con­tentious issue in Saudi Arabia, es­pecially as the kingdom pushes for reform and modernisation. Many citizens, including a significant number of women, supported the ban.
The ban was unofficial for dec­ades but was codified into law af­ter 47 female Saudi activists drove in Riyadh in protest in November 1990. They were imprisoned for one day and had their passports confiscated.
Authorities recently suspended a senior cleric over his views on women. Sheikh Saad al-Hijri, head of the fatwa authority in Asir gov­ernorate, said women should not be allowed to drive because they only have “a quarter of a brain.”
Asir Governor Prince Faisal bin Khalid bin Abdulaziz ordered Hi­jri banned from preaching and all other religious activities. A state­ment from the Asir official spokes­man said measures taken against Hijri were aimed at “controlling the exploitation of preaching plat­forms to raise views that cause controversy within society and de­value human beings.”
In another break from tradition, women in Saudi Arabia were al­lowed for the first time to partici­pate in public celebrations for the kingdom’s 87th National Day, an­other move that drew praise and criticism.
Hundreds of women congregat­ed at the 68,000-seat King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh for the first time. Seating arrange­ments were in line with local cus­toms, with a separate section for single males and a section for fam­ilies, which included women.
Despite the good will and histor­ic nature of the event, backlash on social media served as a reminder of the country’s long road ahead.
Critics on Twitter launched the hashtag “Patriotism does not mean sin” in reaction to the mix­ing of the sexes, with some calling for the return of the controversial religious police.
“Of course, what is happen­ing does not please God and his Prophet,” wrote a Saudi journalist who goes by the name of Meshal on Twitter. “Patriotism is not by dancing and mixing, losing de­cency and playing music. What strange times.”
Saudi Arabia is implementing its Vision 2030 initiative, which lists female empowerment as an important component of its eco­nomic reform plans. The National Day celebrations can be viewed as the type of family entertainment the kingdom is willing to endorse; another chief motivator in the kingdom’s plans to diversify its economy.
These developments come after the government ended the ban on female sports education in state schools and issued a royal decree easing aspects of the kingdom’s male guardianship system. The latter granted women independ­ent access to government services, jobs, education and health care.
“This is not just about women driving but about opening doors,” said Eman M, a 35-year-old single working mother in Jeddah.
“We woke up this morning to a new era with all the responsibili­ties it entails and I believe us wom­en are up for it and will carry our weight in society. I’m both happy and anxious. Change is always dif­ficult at first but I’m glad that I will be part of the initial struggles and pave the way for our children.”