CAIRO — A day after Saudi Arabia’s rulers granted women the right to drive, Saudis and other Arabs expressed mixed emotions Wednesday about overturning one of the kingdom’s most widely criticized restrictions on human rights.
In reactions largely playing out on social media, most celebrated the decision as a step in the right direction. But others cynically noted the numerous official restrictions on Saudi women that remain in place.
Some argued that the decree was a way for the kingdom’s rulers to divert attention from issues such as human rights abuses and the war in neighboring Yemen.
Others took a wait-and-see attitude, observing that the measure to allow women to drive would not take effect until next summer. They expressed concern that to actually drive, women may need the permission of male guardians, such as a husband or brother, as is legally required for many decisions Saudi women make in their lives.
“Saudi order was about issuing drivers licenses to women by June 2018 pending committee recommendations,” tweeted Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “This is far from letting women drive.”
The wariness underscores the dilemma Saudi Arabia faces as it embarks on a cultural and societal transformation unlike anything seen since its founding in 1932. Even as the kingdom seeks to modernize its society through reforms undertaken by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the heir apparent to the Saudi throne, an ultraconservative clergy continues to wield immense influence.
King Salman, who signed Tuesday’s decree, declared that a majority of the kingdom’s senior clerics now say allowing women to drive is permissible under Islamic law. But suspicions persist, largely because women remain second-class citizens in many ways. They require permission from male guardians to travel, obtain passports, sign contracts and get married or divorced. They have to abide by strict dress codes governed by conservative Islamic law. Public buses, parks, beaches and amusement parks are segregated.
Still, for much of the world, the most visible symbol of Saudi women’s lack of freedom has been the prohibition against driving. The Saudi government enthusiastically proclaimed the change Tuesday as part of its blueprint to modernize the kingdom, a decision not based on religion but on social and economic considerations. Saudi officials said implementing the new decree in June 2018 would allow the kingdom to better create a legal and logistical environment that can handle what they described as a potential doubling of traffic.
But on Wednesday, some observers questioned whether women would truly be allowed to drive with full freedom.
“The real question is whether this is a short-lived empty PR stunt or the beginning of fundamental reform in the kingdom,” Madawi al-Rasheed, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, wrote in a column posted on the Middle East Eye website. “We will only know the answer to this question when we hear about the reforms that will come on the back of this.”
Rasheed noted that the kingdom is threatening to sever diplomatic and trade links with U.N. member nations considering a proposal to send independent U.N. investigators to probe possible war crimes by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
There has also been an ongoing crackdown on activists, religious scholars and others critical of the policies of King Salman and the crown prince.
“By allowing women to drive, Saudi regime wants to divert attention from detaining more than 40 [people] since 9 Sept,” Rasheed wrote in a tweet.
Those who deserve the real credit for the decree, Rasheed added, are the many female Saudi activists who spent years publicly protesting the ban, posting videos of themselves driving on Saudi roads.
On Wednesday, Saudi women in the capital, Riyadh, described the decree as life-altering.
“Women driving is a major milestone in our country,” said Hind Alzahid, a Saudi businesswoman. “I believe it will lead to a positive culture revolution.”
She added that the measure would “surely lead to higher female participation in the workforce.”
That is precisely what the Saudi government wants. Its reform plan is designed to diversify the oil-dependent economy. Central to this objective is boosting women’s participation in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent by 2030.
In recent months, the kingdom’s rulers have sought to improve conditions for women, especially in workplaces. The powers of the religious police have been restricted, and women and men in government jobs receive equal pay. Last weekend, women were allowed for the first time to attend a special pageant celebrating Saudi National Day. Typically, women are not allowed to attend public events where they can mingle with unrelated men.
On Wednesday, Saudi men were largely supportive of the decree.
“Driving my daughters has been a never-ending hassle, especially in Riyadh’s traffic,” said Mohammad bin Fahad, 70, a retired government employee who has four daughters. “It is also a financial drain. There is nothing in Islam that forbids women from driving, other than extreme interpretation of religious texts.”
“I will be the first one to take my daughters to get driving licenses,” he added. “This is a basic right, and they must have it.”
Not everyone is pleased to see women drive. Some took to twitter to express their frustration using the hashtags “#PeopleAgainstDriving” and “#WomenOfMyHouseWontDrive.”
For Alzahid, though, the ability to drive legally is “paving the way for more reforms to come,” she said.
Aldosary reported from Riyadh. Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo contributed to this report.