Saudi King seeks Recognition for letting Women Drive, a basic right

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman issued a decree on Tuesday permitting women to drive as of June of next year. Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world to forbid its female citizens from driving automobiles. This unusually misogynistic position derived from two sources.

One is that strong cultural commitment of Saudis to gender segregation– the belief that unrelated men and women should not mix socially. The other is the rigid Wahhabi form of Islam, which is the state religion of Saudi Arabia even though Wahhabis are only about 40% of the population.

Cultural values of gender segregation are not limited to Saudi Arabia or Arab societies. Highly conservative sentiments about the free mixing of the sexes exist throughout Asia and Africa, in Hindu, Buddhist and Christian societies. I remember talking to Indians in the 1970s for whom the phrase “love marriage” was deeply distasteful (my guess is that as many as half the world’s marriages are still arranged and that in those places Hollywood Rom Coms are viewed as a sort of blue film.)

It was this fear that women would intermingle with strange men if they could drive that had led to the ban.

On the other hand, Iran, also a conservative religious state, affords woman many more freedoms than does Saudi Arabia, and there had never been any question in Iran that women could drive. Several elected presidents, including Muhammad Khatami in 1997 and 2001 and Hassan Rouhani more recently, won because of strong support of Iranian women. Saudi Arabia only has limited municipal elections.

Saudi Arabia, like some other petrodollar states of the global South, has undergone incredible changes in the past 50 years. In 1970, only 2% of Saudi women could read and write.

Today, 87% of the Saudi adult population is literate.

Slightly over half of university students, 52%, are women. Most campuses, however, are gender segregated. This situation causes difficulties for women, since although there are a few all-female law or medical schools,they can hardly meet the demand for women’s professional training.

About 60,000 Saudi students are studying in the US, and about half of them are women.

As was true in many places during the twentieth century in the global South, many policies toward women’s liberation were actually enacted for the convenience of men. Saudi rulers let women become so prominent as university students in order to make them suitable brides for the increasing numbers of highly educated Saudi men. The powers that be feared that Saudi men would increasingly take European or North American wives if Saudi women remained uneducated and so unable to carry a conversation with their male peers.

Over 82% of Saudis are now thought to be urban rather than rural

Saudi society thus has severe internal contradictions. Saudi millennials are highly educated, urban and well-traveled. But the conservative Wahhabi establishment attempts to impose heavy restrictions on their personal liberties.

The lifting of the driving ban for women will end a widely resented inconvenience. But Saudi Arabia’s problems are too deep to address in this manner. I suggested a couple of weeks ago the ways the kingdom could improve its image abroad.. I spoke of ending the war on little Yemen, ending the cold war with Iran, and so forth. I did call for an end to the driving ban. But there are many policies that need to be taken in addition, especially in the area of personal liberties.

Still, many sophisticated, educated, cosmopolitan Saudi Women are weeping for joy today at this step forward for their gender. Saudi Arabia cannot afford to squander the talents of half of its population.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Euronews: “Saudi Arabia ‘lifts ban’ on women driving”

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12 Responses

  1. I suspect this measure to let women drive is to stop the well known comment about Saudi Arabia not even allowing their women to drive as a clear criticism of how backward Saudi thinking really is. We will have to wait and see just how many women are actually able to get a license when they make an application. There is nothing about taking a driving test and will a man be the examiner. Presumably women will have to learn at some kind of driving school, especially if they have no male escort. One has to wonder why its necessary to wait until next June to implement this new law. What’s wrong with now? Its one thing to say women are allowed to drive, but quite another in seeing women getting a driving license at the same level as men. I doubt if even 5% of women have a driving license ten years from now.

    • One cannot help but think this is all disingenuous.

      Seems to me their ONLY motivation is one of optics in the US. The KSA has undoubtedly been told by the good folk at Hill & Knolton (or whomever), that the repression of women compromises their control over US policy, which is the linchpin for the regimes survival.

      On the other hand, you have the deal the Saudi’s essentially made with the religious conservatives for power in the first place.

      Seems a rather transparent ploy to reap a PR gain, which they anticipate reneging on later, one way or the other.

  2. Are we seeing Saudi Arabia and Iran engaged in competitive emancipation? Saudi women will be allowed to drive; they have also recently been allowed into stadiums to watch men play football.
    Iranian women have been allowed to drive for years, but they haven’t been allowed into stadiums to watch men play football. The Iranian authorities will now be under severe pressure to lift this prohibition, to avoid Iran being characterised as more repressive than Saudi Arabia.

  3. Talk about an accident waiting to happen!!! The woman behind the wheel wearing her kara çarşaf can’t see nearly enough of her surroundings. After her crash will the first responders be women so that the injured driver won’t have to be seen / touched by a male para-medic not of her family? Somehow, I don’t think the hereditary despot in Riyadh has that figured out yet.

    • My thoughts on seeing that picture, “maybe not such a good idea, can she see well enough to drive safely?”. I hope they make sure that the ability to see unimpaired a requirement.

  4. SA is desperately trying to improve their image, which at the moment is really bad. No image consultant can change or improve it, until SA stops bombing Yemen, and conspiring with Israel to cause mischief around the world. It also has to stop trying to radicalize Muslims in other nations, and getting involved in proxy wars with Iran. Just like their good buddy, Israel, no amount of consultants, hasbara, and good samaritan actions, can change what the world knows, and sees, when it comes to human rights violations.

  5. The problem is the tendency of giving social and religious concessions to the West in order to deflect more meaningful demands for accountability and representation,

    Take Egypt and Syria as examples, socially/religiously quiet liberal for many decades, still corrupt dictatorships.

  6. “Saudi Women are weeping for joy today at this step forward for their gender.” Women and gays in Alabama are weeping because gun toting Christian purist Judge Moore will in all likelihood be their next senator. We’re going in the wrong direction.

  7. While allowing women to drive is a positive move, the Saudi government should no be allowed to use it as a propaganda ploy to divert attention from many other aspects of the regime’s behavior, such as the devastating war in Yemen, its propagation of strict Wahhabi tenets among Muslims in other countries, and its hostile attitude towards the Shi’as and the followers of other religions, etc. It should be interesting to see how the more conservative Saudis will react to this decree. Even this minor move, which will not come into effect till next June, has already given rise to a great deal of opposition.

    The problem is that the base in Saudi Arabia is even more conservative than the members of the ruling elite, but the government is trying to assert its authority and limit the power of the clerics in public life. According to the Guardian, a Saudi cleric who said that women should not drive because their brains shrink to a quarter of the size of a man’s when they go shopping has been banned from preaching. link to theguardian.com

  8. I have been and remain highly critical of the Saudi regime, but for once I think we should just accept and applaud this obviously long overdue progressive move. It had long been rumored that the incompetent and arrogant new crown prince, MbS, was going to deliver women driving and other moves into modernity. It is about time that he finally delivered on something admirable and useful rather than stupidities like the horrible war in Yeman and the absurd embargo on Qatar, not to mention ongoing discrimination against Shia and other religious minorities.

  9. My positivity on this news about some Saudi Arabian progress was short lived when I read the other recent article from HRW on the website.

    Saudi Arabia: Official Hate Speech Targets Minorities

    link to juancole.com

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