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On September 26, the government of Saudi Arabia issued a royal decree announcing that Saudi women will be able to acquire drivers’ licenses and drive legally in the near future. Although the specifics of the policy and legal shift have yet to be released (Saudi women are not yet driving), the announcement has been well-covered (and celebrated) by Western media outlets, which often refer to the ban on driving as one of the main examples of Saudi women’s oppression. At the same time, other outlets have showed skepticism in regards to why Saudi Arabia has decided to implement such a policy change and have cited Western pressure as the main push for Saudi women acquiring the right to drive.
MMW has discussed Saudi women’s rights and coverage of Saudi women in a variety of media outlets. This has included Saudi women’s right to vote, participation in sports, art and writing (and editing). Further, we have consistently discussed how Saudi women’s activism is *actually* paving the way for women in the country.
Important to note is that earlier these year the government modified elements of the guardianship system to allow some Saudi women to access some services without a man’s permission. Further, a few days after women were “granted” the right to drive, it was announced that Saudi women will be allowed to issue fatwas and that Saudi Arabia will criminalize sexual harassment.
Fatin, Sya and Eren discuss the news!
Fatin: Congratulations to my Saudi sisters! Before we deconstruct all the reasons for and behind this decision, let’s just take a moment to celebrate! Saudi women activists’ hard work, has drawn attention to inequalities in Saudi Arabia. Many of us take driving for granted. In some settings, it is a momentous rite of passage for teenagers across the globe and a mundane task for many adults. But the ability to get in a car and drive yourself anywhere you need (or want) to go can be a freeing experience.
Eren: Absolutely, many of us take the privilege of driving for granted (in most countries, driving is not a “right”). But I am concerned about how we continue to perpetuate the idea that Saudi (Muslim) women are the only women around the world who have no right to mobility (based on not being able to drive in Saudi Arabia). Saudi women are one of the only groups of women facing direct policies banning them from driving, which is a challenge to mobility (along with other policies like the guardianship system); yet, the right to mobility requires a whole lot of preconditions to truly be fulfilled. In countries like Canada, for example, Indigenous women, immigrant women and temporary foreign workers (many of whom are women) sometimes face a lot of mobility barriers due to language, lack of driving skills, lack of transportation, lack of access to a credit card or a good credit history and infrastructure in rural settings, lack of money to access a vehicle and/or the sometimes prohibitive prices associated with licensing, registration and insurance! Hence, the argument concerns me because it is quite classist and also overlooks the many ways in which racialized women’s mobility is restricted in all sorts of settings. It also makes me wonder, where in the narrative do we account for poor women or women without legal status not only in Saudi Arabia but elsewhere, who do not benefit from policies “allowing them to drive” because of other mobility barriers?
Despite being a fundamental right, mobility is not quite a reality for a lot of racialized Muslim women across the world. Borders, for instance, are a huge barrier to mobility for racialized Muslim women, particularly Third World women. And not only that, sometimes we frame mobility in very ableist ways because we are primarily concerned with able-bodied women’s access to mobility. What about women living with disabilities? What will this policy shift do to accommodate the needs of Saudi women living with disabilities?
Sya: I also find the reasons for “granting permission” for Saudi women to drive hard to swallow. Right now, for instance, it is said that the “right” to drive isn’t actually about human rights, but a strategic capitalist move that will increase the rate of female employment. Do Saudi women only deserve rights if they can help their country make more money?
Fatin: Yes! And that is how every side of the issue will use this decision to suit their agenda. Some will scoff and list all the things “Saudi women still can’t do” and others will hail the decision as “a great step in the right direction,” while conveniently turning a blind eye to some other discriminatory practices in the country. This very well may be a public relations move. It certainly is an economic one. As Saudi Arabia explores other economic options beside oil production, allowing women to drive is a smart economic move. There is even talks of a Saudi university opening a female driving school. Car companies were falling over themselves to put out ads congratulating Saudi women. Shoot! Ford company couldn’t work fast enough, apparently stealing an ad and then whitewashing it. Nonetheless, what I believe is important to remember is that this movement was started by Saudi women and needs to be led by them. Everyone else’s thoughts, feelings and attempts to co-opt the movement will need to be left in the rearview mirror (sorry, not sorry).
Eren: The next few months will be crucial. In the past week, Saudi women got the “right” to drive and issue fatwas, as well as a law protecting them from sexual harassment. Yet, let’s not forget that when Saudi women were “granted” the right to vote, the government dragged their feet during the following election. The first women politicians were elected in 2015. Hence, from an implementation perspective, advocacy and political pressure will likely be key. And I hope that such efforts will not fail to include women who are not necessarily middle-class or rich, able-bodied, light skin or from prominent families.
Sya: I think this is definitely still a moment to celebrate. Freedom of movement is something many of us take for granted. At the same time, going by Saudi activists themselves, there are also other aspects of Saudi law, such as guardianship, which need to be reformed big time. Reforming this law would have an even greater impact on women’s freedom of movement and agency. Let’s see if further reforms happen without having to be justified in terms of increasing gross domestic product (GDP)?
Fatin: Well, change is coming. Change always scares people. Many will try to hide behind Islam for their reasoning to oppose the new policies. But none of the mobility restrictions have basis in Islam. So Godspeed, ladies!