Another milestone on Saudi women’s road to empowerment

Maha Akeel

THE royal decree to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia is a historic decision that has been long in the waiting. Sept. 26, 2017, will be remembered as the day Saudi women’s right to drive was recognized, the day they gained a right that has always been theirs, and the day when the politically courageous decision was finally made to uphold that right.
The bold step eliminates one of the leading criticisms of Saudi Arabia regarding women’s rights and discrimination against them.
This year’s National Day has an extra drive to it. Finally, Saudi Arabia will not be the only country in the world that does not allow women to drive.
Like the milestone royal decree in 2011 appointing women to the Shoura Council and opening the door for them to vote and run in municipal elections a few years later, this royal decree is very important considering the tremendous pushback, objection and refusal by quite a large segment of society, including women, against allowing women to drive. However, like previous objections by narrow-minded or ignorant people to developments from radio and TV to schools for girls and female IDs, eventually they will accept, comply and even embrace the change, hopefully without taking too long or causing too much disruption.
The decree was thorough and comprehensive in its background reasoning and steps for implementation. It referred to the “negative effects of not allowing women to drive vehicles, and the positive effects envisaged from allowing them to do so” within the context of Islamic law, which is what has been discussed, debated and argued about for years. Those who objected based on religious fatwas were countered by factual religious standards and historical references that clearly showed there is no religious basis for prohibiting women from driving.
They predicted and cautioned about what might, could, would happen if women drove. While some of their precautions were overly fearful but sensible, it did not mean they could not be solved and handled by law, society itself and provisions just as in any other country. Others, meanwhile, came up with some of the most ridiculous reasons, making us the laughing stock of the world.
It was said time and time again by leaders and scholars that actually this was a social issue, and society had to be ready. The decree lays down the social circumstances, especially economic considerations and demographic, that indicates society is ready and supportive. More importantly, the government will work to implement the steps necessary to make it possible for women to obtain a driver’s license and establish the required administrative procedures, logistics and traffic rules and regulations. A ministerial body will be formed to advise on these matters and present their recommendations within 30 days. Let us hope they do not undermine the decision by suggesting uncalled-for restrictions and limitations.
For stay-at-home mothers or career women, for young or old, for low-income families or the wealthy, being able to drive benefits all segments of society and will give women more independence and the confidence to manage their lives.
Implementation of the decree is expected by June 2018, a date that will be awaited with high excitement. Women driving will have a huge impact on their mobility, easing their daily lives of going to school and work, running errands and finishing chores without having to worry about who will drive them, spending money on taxis and Uber and Careem, or a chunk of their salary on drivers. For stay-at-home or working mothers, for career women or home-based businesswomen, for young or old women, low-income families or high income, driving cuts across all segments of society as an economic and social empowerment. It will certainly allow women more independence and give them confidence to manage their lives.
Significantly, the Saudi Ambassador to the US, Prince Khaled bin Salman, said women would not need permission from their legal guardian to obtain a driver’s license. This implies that the authority of the male guardian over women is being reduced. It remains to be seen if further curbing of this authority, and even its complete abolition, is being considered. That would be the real victory — liberation and empowerment of Saudi women.
The decision to allow women to drive is part of the overhaul in economic and social reforms in which the Kingdom is opening up in many ways, leaping forward with determination under the leadership of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Women, and society as a whole, are looking forward to more progressive decisions that reflect this dynamic transformation.

—Courtesy: Arab News
[Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer. Twitter: @MahaAkeel1]

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