By Vanessa Leal
On Sep. 26, Saudi Arabia surprised the world by lifting its longstanding driving ban on women, a global recognized symbol and example of the gender oppression carried by the country. The decision was announced live by a royal decree on Saudi state television, and via a media event in Washington, D.C. The news spread quickly across the United States, with reactions from the media and political commentators mostly on tones of celebration. The positive reactions were not different among RU students.
“I think the decision to let women in Saudi Arabia drive is really exciting and it’s a big step forward for them and their country,” said sophomore musical theater major Evan Smith.
“I think this is a great accomplishment,” said Deyanira Arechar, a sophomore psych major. “Hopefully it will open up more doors for them.”
Arechar said she compared freedoms in the Middle East region to those in the United States. “My boyfriend’s family is from Jordan, and they came here when they were very young. To see how their life was before and how it is now they’re here… they get to do a lot more stuff,” said Arechar.
Activists groups in Saudi Arabia had long embraced the movement and campaigned for the rights of women to drive. Some women have been arrested for defying the law and getting behind the wheel. The ones who play by the rules spend most of their salaries on drivers or need to find male relatives to give them rides so they can get to work. With the change, after June of 2018, women will no longer be arrested and would not have to rely on men to drive them around.
RU political science professor Bethany Barratt also commented on the ban lift. Barratt said she will never forget her mother’s stories on having to be driven everywhere while living in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s. “That it is definitely a historical achievement because it is so symbolic,” Barratt said. Barratt said this change is meaningful for women but not without consequence.
“Well its symbolic importance is great, its practical impact is probably much less,” Barratt said. She explained that some progressive regions of Saudi Arabia were already tolerating women driving. Barratt pointed out that granting this one right while other fundamental rights are still repressed is insignificant and patronizing.
“It’s somewhat analogous to an abusive partner in a relationship who takes their significant other out to a fancy dinner every now and then so that they’ll complain less about being emotionally or physically mistreated,” Barratt said.
Barratt said fundamental human rights are universal, but there needs to be different strategies to gain them because each country’s society is different.
“In this case, what would be appropriate, in my opinion, is to determine what the majority of the women themselves want,” Barratt said. “Not what the majority of men in Saudi culture want, but what the women want.”
The decision to lift the driving ban for women can cause internal resistance in Saudi Arabia. Justifications on the driving prohibition had ranged from claimed impropriety of having women driving in Saudi Arabia cultural standards to concerns that allowing women to drive would lead to promiscuity and collapse of Saudi families. A Saudi cleric once said that driving is harmful to women’s ovaries.
The driving ban has long been a target of international disapproval and criticized as policy shared only by jihadists of the Taliban and the Islamic State. The change happens in conjunction with further recent reforms brought by the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The prince has laid plans to renovate Saudi Arabia’s economy and social structure. Increasing numbers of women are now joining the workforce in Saudi Arabia. In 2015, women were also allowed to vote and run for seats in the Saudi local councils.