In Latest Loosening of Cultural Restrictions, Saudi Arabia Licenses First Women to Drive

June 30, 2018
Women2Drive movement art, featuring robed woman behind the wheel

As the clock struck midnight in Saudi Arabia Sunday, thousands of women around the kingdom started their cars and embarked on their first legal drive in their own land.

“I’m speechless. I’m so excited it’s actually happening,” Hessah al-Ajajj told the Associated Press. Al-Ajajj said she planned to drive herself to work for the first time the following morning.

“Those days of waiting long hours for a driver are over,” 21-year-old pharmacy student Hatoun bin Dakhil told the BBC. “We no longer need a man.”

For decades, a prohibition on women driving complemented a panoply of other national laws and customs designed to maintain strict gender separation and remain faithful to a strict, literal interpretation of Islam.

The Saudi Arabian kingdom’s adherence to Wahhabism, a stringent form of Sunni Islam, dates back to the 18th century, when Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab sought refuge in the kingdom after being rejected for his strict adherence to sharia law. Abd al-Wahhab, who pushed for strict, traditional readings of the Quran and rejected other forms of Islam as heresy, built a partnership with the ruling Saud family, gaining increasing power over social and religious regulations.

That partnership continues today as Abd al-Wahhab’s descendents (the Sheikh family) maintain control over the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. In adherence with the Sheikh family’s interpretation of Islam, public observance of any religion other than Islam is illegal in Saudi Arabia, as is public criticism of the government, Islam, or the royal family. Same-sex sexual acts are punishable by execution.

The ruling Saud family, however, has begun to slowly curtail the Sheikh family’s powers in recent years.

Since his father’s rise to kingship in 2015, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has helped to redefine the relationship between the Sheikh family and the force of law. In 2016, the Saudi cabinet stripped the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice of its arrest powers.

The June 24 lift on the Saudi Arabian women driving ban was part of a broader push toward modernization and economic revitalization spearheaded by bin Salman. His Saudi Vision 2030 program—aimed at shifting the economy away from reliance on oil—has introduced public music concerts, movie theaters, and theme parks and, crucially, opened such entertainment to women and men alike.

Women have also gained access to public sporting events, running for public office, and participating in public events for national holidays. In February of this year, bin Salman announced that women were not obligated to wear abayas, or long, modest cloaks.

Many Saudis—women in particular—have greeted the changes happily. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, told the New York Times that, as the home of Mecca and other holy Muslim sites, he sees the kingdom as wielding a “soft power” regarding how other Muslims and majority-Muslim nations understand Islam and society.

“When people look at Saudi Arabia, see Mecca and Medina, they want to emulate it,” al-Jubeir said. “When they see openness and moderation and tolerance and innovation, that’s what they want to be.”

For some Saudi women, however, the changes do not go nearly far enough. Saudi Arabia still maintains its guardianship laws, requiring women to seek permission from a husband or male relative to apply for passports, travel outside the country, open a bank account, get certain surgeries, and even leave prison. 

Moreover, while bin Salman’s changes suggest a pivot toward increasing women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, the past few years have seen a crackdown on vocal protestors lobbying for those rights. A number of women that have pushed for women’s right to drive—including Loujain al-Hathloul, who gained notoriety in 2014 for live-Tweeting her attempt to drive from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia—remain imprisoned. Women’s rights activists have indicated that eliminating guardianship laws is their next big hurdle.

60-year-old Aziza al-Yousef, a retired computer science professor who was arrested in 2013 for driving a car, told CNN, “We are sick and tired of waiting to be given our rights. It’s about time to take our rights.”

While outside critics of the nation’s women’s rights restrictions have uniformly welcomed the small changes ushered in by bin Salman, many analysts have expressed a fear of history repeating itself.

From 1964 to 1975, then-King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud had made a similar push toward modernization, including the abolition of slavery and the implementation of girls’ public education. After Faisal was assassinated by his nephew in 1975 and Mecca’s Grand Mosque was seized by Islamic extremists in 1979, the royal family returned to a stricter observance of traditional religious and social norms.

Some historians and cultural analysts have raised concerns that citizens and religious leaders that are discontented with the current cultural loosening might be pushed underground, where discontent could fester into rebellion. Already the Islamic State has filmed recruitment videos drawing on Wahhabism to condemn the Saudi royal family as traitors to true Islam.

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: Women2Drive movement art. Photo by Carlos Latuff, Wikimedia Commons.