The right to drive is meaningless until male guardianship ends

The right to drive is meaningless until male guardianship ends
Comment: Without serious political reforms and real change in the law, the decision to let Saudi women drive is merely decorative and for performance purposes, writes Tamara Kharroub.
6 min read
28 Sep, 2017
Saudi women are nonetheless far from achieving equal rights and freedoms [AFP]
On Tuesday September 26, Saudi Arabia announced on its state-run Saudi Press Agency through a Royal decree that women in the kingdom will be allowed to drive. The ban on Saudi women driving had been enforced through prohibiting issuing driving licenses to women and arresting women who attempted to drive. 

The decision, which was signed by King Salman, said that women would be permitted to drive "in accordance with Islamic law". This came just a few days after a senior Saudi state cleric proclaimed in a lecture that a woman's brain or intellect is one quarter the size of a man's, and that's why they should not be trusted to drive a vehicle.

Previously, another cleric in Saudi Arabia declared that driving harms a woman's ovaries and thus her fertility. More than 150 religious scholars and clerics protested in 2013 against women driving in Saudi Arabia.

According to the royal statement, the decree will be "effective immediately" but will take months to roll out as a committee of ministers has been set up to look into the implementation process, which is said to take actual effect in June 2018.

The exact make-up of said committee has not been made clear, nor has the reason why a committee and nine months are needed to roll out such a decree.

Given the pronouncements by Saudi clerics, one can only imagine the creative ways in which the decree might be implemented, if any, so that it is "in accordance with Islamic law" by Saudi religious standards.

A dangerous, cosmetic fix

This decree comes following a gradual shift in Saudi policies as part of Vision 2030, which the newly appointed crown prince Mohammad bin Salman has been pushing in the way of social and economic reforms to diversify the economy and reduce dependence on oil.

As part of this plan, the kingdom has seen incremental steps over the past few years to relax some of its restrictions on women, such as including women in the Olympics team, expanding employment options for women, limited participation in local elections, and introducing physical education to girls in schools.

This was evident a few days ago when Saudi women were allowed for the first time into the King Fahed Stadium to participate in national day festivals, attend musical concerts, and even join the public gender-mixed celebrations in the streets.

But make no mistake, this is hardly progress. Authoritarian regimes have long employed seemingly progressive women's rights initiatives to enhance their image in the West, while they continue their repressive policies without any real progress towards rights and freedoms for their citizens.

Authoritarian regimes have long employed seemingly progressive women's rights initiatives to enhance their image in the West

The famous "Suzanne's Laws" in Egypt and personal status codes introduced by Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba provide prominent examples. Women's rights were used as a cover for oppressive policies, and remained limited to arenas granted by the patriarchal repressive state.

This form of economically driven state-controlled measures is detrimental to real progress for women's and human rights.

In fact, as the only country in the world where women are barred from driving, the Saudi Kingdom has received mounting criticism for its abuses of women’s rights, disproportionately focusing on women’s driving which has greatly sidelined other important issues.

Read more: Women's driving: Saudi Prince Mohammed's litmus test

While, if implemented, lifting the ban on women's driving is a significant relief for Saudi women, it is nonetheless far from achieving equal rights and freedoms.

Women remain subject to male guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia, which bar women from obtaining passports, travelling, getting married, or conducting transactions without permission from male relatives, who control every aspect of their lives.

Even abused women or "runaways" are arrested and forced to return to their abusive families. Being able to drive, while helpful, will not change the violations of women's rights and abuses committed against women by their male relatives and the state on a daily basis.

Being able to drive, while helpful, will not change the violations of women's rights and abuses

On the contrary, while Saudi officials claims women will be issued driving licenses without the permission of a male guardian, as long as the guardianship laws are in place, women's driving and movement (and in fact all their rights and freedoms), will continue to be under the full control of their male relatives. 

This decision by Saudi Arabia is clearly intended as nothing more than an international public relations move in order to appease the international community's concerns about the state of human rights in the kingdom.

Without serious political reforms and real change in the laws, this decision is merely decorative for performance purposes.

International hypocrisy  

Most of the international media and official reactions welcomed the move. US President Donald Trump said in a statement that this change is "a positive step toward promoting the rights and opportunities of women in Saudi Arabia," while US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called it "a great step in the right direction".

Similarly, United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres tweeted in support of the decision. 

The fact that a news piece about a small group of powerful men deciding to consider allowing 15 million women to drive in 2018 is being celebrated as progress, is more telling than the decision itself. 

The international community continues to consider Saudi Arabia an important political and economic ally, despite the gross human rights violations in the kingdom.

In fact, while criticism of the country's human rights records is regularly expressed, global powers continue business as usual with Saudi Arabia. In its 2016 human rights report, the US State Department explicitly cited Saudi Arabia's "pervasive gender discrimination and lack of equal rights that affected most aspects of women's lives," in addition to trafficking, violence, and discrimination based on gender, religion, sect, race and ethnicity. 

While the decision to allow Saudi women to drive is certainly a step forward, it is difficult to see how this will amount to serious political reform and change without international pressure.

Global powers' support for authoritarian regimes has done nothing to advance Arab women's rights, and the lessons have not been learnt. In the name of political and economic alliances, those very powers that parade values of equality and human rights continue to turn a blind eye to Saudi abuses and violations.

On the bright side, the driving ban, as outrageous as it is, has taken most of the international attention when it came to Saudi Arabia. Now that the ban is lifted, other human rights abuses might be brought to the spotlight, and hopefully addressed.

Dr. Tamara Kharroub is a Senior Analyst and Assistant Executive Director at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.