Saudi women celebrate driving ban reversal
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.”