After the initial shock, when it became clear that the king really had made such a decree, the reaction that followed was jubilation and pure joy. “Congratulations to all Saudi ladies,” one of my high school friends posted. “We did it!”
Yet some people from other, supposedly more enlightened parts of the world, are rolling their eyes.
American comedian and feminist Chelsea Handler tweeted, “Yay! Saudi Arabia! Women can now drive the f___ out of there.” Somali American Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota state representative, tweeted, “The most oppressive country finally waking up to the reality that women don’t need to be babysat, smh,” and called Saudi “a country stuck in 14th century.”
And there were many more. “Breaking: Saudi Arabia to join the 20th century in June of next year.” “Call me when you can’t get executed for sorcery.” Several would-be comedians tweeted images of cars in burqa-like shrouds:
To these people I say: Stop laughing at Saudi Arabia for trying to improve itself.
Yes, women’s ability to drive in Saudi has been a long time coming and won’t go into effect until June. And yes, there’s a long way to go to secure full and equal rights for Saudi women. Being able to drive isn’t the end of the struggle in a country where speech is heavily curtailed and women need male permission to do many things. The Saudi government doesn’t deserve full-throated praise for the decision, which was not necessarily altruistic: Outside pressure on Saudi Arabia as it attempts to diversify and revitalize its economy through its Vision 2030 development likely had something to do with the royal decree. Some observers say the ending of the ban is propelled by economics (the country cannot reach its development goals without a role for working women), and others have suggested that this is not a matter of civil rights but of improving the kingdom’s reputation and preserving its influence in the world.
But whatever the government’s reasoning, the end of the ban is itself a huge step forward, and scoffing at it disrespects the activism of many Saudi women who have agitated for this right, starting with the 47 who drove through Riyadh in 1990. With all eyes on Saudi Arabia during the buildup to the first Gulf War, they believed they could gain attention for the plight of Saudi women. They lost their jobs and were kept from leaving the country for years. Religious police called them prostitutes.
Then in 2011, as the Arab Spring protests heated up across the Middle East, single mom Manal al-Sharif used social media to encourage other women to drive on June 17, running errands like going to the grocery store since political protest and gathering is also banned in the kingdom. Before the date could even come, al-Sharif was caught driving and jailed. Still, several dozen women drove in major Saudi cities that day, and at least half a dozen were stopped by authorities and told not to drive again. In 2013, another 60 or so women, including a family friend I babysat for in the early 1990s, took to the streets in protest. Several were detained by police, and many were harassed both in public and on social media.
These brave women, and others over the years, deserve more than a little credit. The results of their struggle was not immediate, but they showed their government and the world that they would do anything to obtain the right to drive, to have freedom of movement within their own country. And they’ve finally won.
Many are now talking about the next step: Eradicating Saudi Arabia’s notorious guardianship laws, which require women to have male permission for activities, including traveling, applying for a passport and studying abroad on a government scholarship — even to be released from jail. Until now, it had seemed impossible that guardianship, which has been reformed and loosened slightly in recent years, could ever go away entirely. But with the driving ban soon to be gone, I have new hope that guardianship could soon be history as well.
Nearly 30 years ago when I was 16, my father and I defied the ban when he gave me secret driving lessons in Jiddah, my hometown. In an empty neighborhood on the outskirts of town where my dad owned a vacant lot, I drove his car around the block, practicing turning and braking as he coached me from the passenger’s seat.
It felt normal to us to engage in a rite of passage common to fathers and daughters around the world. But what we were doing was dangerous. If anyone had seen me driving and reported my father and me to the police, he could have landed in jail.
How amazing to me that soon, Saudi fathers will be able teach their daughters to drive without fear. It took less than an eternity to reach that point; I can only hope the country is gaining momentum.