Saudi steps on gas by letting women drive

By Shu Meng Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/2 10:01:23

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT


 
The New York Times reported on September 26 that Saudi Arabia declared an end to its longstanding ban on female drivers. Before this day, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world to prohibit women from driving. 

The ban had existed since the country was founded in 1932. Many women were detained for illegal driving.  

The debate over whether women should be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia has a long history. On the one hand, people against it argue that women driving could easily lead to problems such as pornography, promiscuity and family breakdown. Some even believe that allowing women to drive is "anti-social" behavior. On the other, the calls for women to drive have been rising and allowing them to drive is one of the most important indicators of development of women's rights in Saudi Arabia.

The first reason for ending the ban is to improve the domestic economic environment. As Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal pointed out previously, women rely on "foreign" private drivers or taxis, which is costly. Besides, many reports show that difficulties of movement have been affecting the already very low employment rate of Saudi Arabia women.

Second, it is a way to reduce domestic and international pressure. Women's rights activists and liberals, both inside and outside Saudi Arabia, have advocated the emancipation of women including the women's right to drive. During September, 2016, more than 10,000 Saudi nationals jointly called for giving women their full rights, ending the guardianship system that allows men to control their female relatives' employment, schooling and travel. Some women have been arrested and jailed for defying the ban on driving. 

In Europe and America, human rights organizations and economic and social development organizations have been criticizing Saudi Arabia for its women's policy. Overturning the ban alleviates the pressure and improves the image of Saudi Arabia.

Third, it is a step taken by leaders to promote social reform. Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has taken over the throne with a younger leadership group. Under his leadership, the country continues to promote a project called "Vision 2030," encouraging women to obtain higher education and work in society. Giving women the right to drive is important progress toward the "vision."

Based on the reasons above, Saudi Arabia has abandoned the long controversial ban on women driving. This change will bring a profoundly positive impact on the country.

For Saudi Arabia, it is a milestone of progress on gender and social equality, which has been improving in recent years. 

In 2015, Saudi Arabia gave women the right to vote for the first time and set up polling stations for female voters. In February this year, for the first time in the Saudi history a woman was appointed CEO of a large commercial bank, the Samba Financial Group. Since September, women can enter the King Fahd International Stadium in the capital city Riyadh for national day celebrations. Saudi Arabia has been very conservative among Middle Eastern countries and this reform represents a significant improvement in women's rights in the Muslim world.   

However, there are two sides to every coin. While praising this crucial step, it is also important to notice that ending the ban on women driving will likely face some disagreement and resistance inside the kingdom and the Muslim world. 

This May, the Middle East Broadcasting Center initiated a survey about whether giving women the right to drive, which registered 78 percent opposition. Unlike men, in some Muslim countries women have to ask for permission from a male guardian to participate in public activities. Although the policy was pushed through, the implementation of the policy will inevitably encounter some resistance from conservatives and social customs. 

The resistance should not be generalized as "ignorant" or "uncivilized" by the outside world. It is important to understand the religious implication and respect Islam. Any reform or change should slowly take place from inside society.

At the same time, ending the ban proves that with further globalization, even in a country as conservative as Saudi Arabia and a region as religious as the Middle East, secularization is the general trend. Giving women the right to drive marks a victory for women's rights, symbolizing improving gender and social equality. It also represents a step forward toward regional secularization and a deeper connection with the outside world.

The author is an assistant researcher at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn



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