Women Drive and Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia
Table of Contents
For many decades, the aspect of women abuse in the society has been a major issue that has captured both local and global attention. There has been continued prevalence in a different kind of women abuse such as denial of basic education, female genital mutilation, and the mode of dressing. However, for a long time, little attention has been drawn to the kind of abuse leveled at the women of Saudi Arabia that prohibit them from driving their cars. This simple freedom to drive that has been denied these women tend to be spoken in high volumes about the state of the rights that women are subjected to in the country. The paper will, therefore, look into the aspect of women driving in Saudi Arabia and the consequent rights within the country by focusing on the reasons for the driving ban, the cultural or religious aspect behind the ban, and any opposition towards it.
Reason for not Driving
It should be noted that there is no written down law that prohibits the women of Saudi Arabia from driving (Burgess, 2015). The ban is mostly out of both a sociocultural and religious beliefs, and it tends to be enforced largely by the Islamic-based theocracy establishments that exist within the country (IBT, 2011). In 1991, the Saudi Arabian clerics decreed a non-binding religious edict (or fatwa) that banned the country’s women from driving and Wahhabism that advocates for sex segregation and women veiling in the country (Pizano, 2012). The law demands that every Saudi Arabian woman must at all times have a male guardian around her who is her husband or a close male relative in most cases. In the traditional aspect, the guardian is supposed to go everywhere with her and permit her to do certain tasks such as opening a bank account. Therefore, the driving ban is mainly because giving the women permission to drive is seen to be a threat to the guardian system. According to the Sharia law, the country’s clerics have to develop certain beliefs that it is an indecent act for any woman to drive since it is likely to reveal their hands and enhances their chances of socializing with young males. The clerics believe that every woman, is she a mother or someone’s sister, is naturally flawed regarding morality and is a seductress, a covert or overt being that is only waiting to ruin the morals of any male being passing by her (Banco, 2014). Therefore, since having sex outside marriage is a crime, all the necessary steps to prevent it in the country must be taken including banning women from public activities such as driving.
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However, the attitude of women driving is mainly confined to the major Saudi Arabian cities. Most of the women drive in the rural areas since driving is a major necessity there. Women working on farms tend to drive their trucks and pickups since they need to move their fodder and other animal foods around the farm. The men in these areas tend to understand and raise no objections. In urban areas, however, things tend to be different as there are more people in the city, and a large number of people available implies that there are more opportunities to sin. The availability of public transport system further enforces the aspect of banning women from driving. The aspect has often raised a major question as to why their male counterparts in more advanced urban areas with access to advanced civilization do not provide their women with the same rights.
Furthermore, since the law does not prohibit women from driving, most women in Saudi Arabia have resorted to obtaining their driving licenses from abroad through international agencies because they cannot be given the licenses in Saudi Arabia. However, with the increased enforcement of the law and various campaigns to allow women to drive in the country, the aspect of obtaining the licenses from abroad has become more difficult with more and more applications being rejected. The women’s main urge to drive has been because they spend a lot of money on public transport system. Most women claim to have spent more than a half of their salaries paying for taxi services which they use to move around the major cities. Furthermore, the women feel that the aspect of being sidelined from the process of selecting their drivers has left them at the mercy of moving around with complete strangers as their permanent employees. Most women have complained about having uncomfortable moments with their drivers, and there have been reported cases of rape at gunpoint in some cases.
Protests against the Ban
For the past few decades, women in Saudi Arabia have staged several demonstrations and protests against the ban on driving. The major stimulus to lift the ban against driving has mostly been supported by the Saudi Arabian youths who have actively participated in the campaigns through the social media. The youths have been actively posting pictures of Saudi Arabian women driving through the major cities on their Instagrams and Facebook pages and in some instances posting videos of women driving on YouTube to advocate for the women driving campaign, a campaign that aims at directing to the scrapping of the ban against driving. In the run up to every woman driving campaign, several women have resorted to the wheels in defiance of the ban and have posted several videos showing themselves driving to and from the major groceries and shopping centers around the city. Even though some of the women have been arrested while driving around the city, no major charge has been pressed against them since the law does not prohibit driving. In most cases, the women have been held at the station until their guardians came to pick them up.
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The first protest against the ban was launched two decades ago (in 1990), when a group of women protested the 1957 ban against driving. The group got their cars and were driving around the city of Riyadh for almost 30 minutes before they were stopped by the police and imprisoned, their passport were confiscated, and some of those women even lost their jobs (Banco, 2014). In 2007, several women in Saudi Arabia collected signatures further to petition the Saudi Arabian leader, King Abdullah, for allowing them to drive. Even though the women collected over 1200 signatures, the ban remained in place (Banco, 2014). In 2008, one of the prominent women right activists in Saudi Arabia, Wajeha al-Huwaider, made a film of her driving a car and posted the video on YouTube. The posted video, which was made on International Women’s Day, received global attention, but the clerics and the lawmakers in Saudi Arabia still refused to get rid of the ban (Banco, 2014).
Manal-Al-Sharif is another woman who has been actively involved in the campaign for the women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia. Manal attended several international conferences including the Oslo Freedom Forum that was organized to promote global human rights democracy and equal justice (Pizano, 2012). In these conferences, Manal rooted for the international community to address the issue in her country. However, she and other Saudi Arabian females were denied the right to drive that led to her establishing the Women2Drive Campaign, which was aimed at removing the ban against women driving cars. Even though the video of her speech at the forum attracted 300000 global viewers, Manal was widely criticized in her native country Saudi Arabia and was branded as a traitor for starting a campaign that protested the ban against driving.
Despite numerous protests that have been made towards the ban against driving, other women in Saudi Arabia have endorsed it and used this aspect as a way of differentiating Saudi Arabia from other advanced liberal countries. To some extent, they kept the country from influence by the Western world. A survey by Gallup (2007) indicated that only a mere 66 percent of the total Saudi Arabian women wanted themselves to be allowed to drive, while, on the other hand, only 55% of the men were for the idea of lifting the ban. The pro-ban started a countermovement which was aimed at countering the Women2Drive Campaign (Khazan, 2013). It, therefore, indicates that the issue is so much deeply rooted in the country’s religion and culture, that it would be difficult to overturn the ban. The separation of men and women in public forms the core element of Saudi Arabian national identity and is often seen as the major trademark that makes the country’s society unique and superior to other Muslim nations and Western countries (Khazan, 2013).
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The Saudi Arabia has had a mixed reaction towards the issue of banning women from driving in the country. In the first instance, the government has been actively involved through the police force in the crackdown on the protesters who are spearheading the Women2Drive Campaign (Banco, 2014). The police has been active in warning and arresting women who have defied the ban and resorted to the wheels. The government-sponsored religious police and the normal one have often pulled over Saudi Arabian woman they noticed driving, have imprisoned them, and sometimes have confiscated driving licenses belonging to the women. Furthermore, the Saudi Arabian government stand firmly on the matter is that there is still no written law in Saudi Arabia that forbids women to drive; but until that day, when the society will be ready to accept that women can drive, it will not allow it to happen. The Saudi government led by King Abdullah has promised various social reforms in the past, but most of his decisions must often be dependent on the clerics who happen to be his family’s key supporters and ensure that he does not violate their religious establishments (Pizano, 2012). The interior minister in the Saudi government indicated that the controversy over the driving issue was a mere exaggeration and had no meaning since the matter was social and could only be handled by the society (Stampler, 2011).
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The recommendations from the Saudi Arabian king’s advisory council made the recommendation that women will be allowed to drive, but only under some laid down rules and regulations. Under the laid recommendations, only the women who are over the age of 30 years would have the permission to drive, and it will be granted by their male relatives, probably a father or a husband (The Associated Press, 2014). The women would be regulated to driving only between 7am and 8pm Saturday to Wednesday and from noon to 8pm Thursday to Friday. The recommendation further requires the women who want to drive to wear a conservative dress and to avoid any make-up (The Associated Press, 2014). Furthermore, women will be allowed to drive without a male guardian within cities, while they must be accompanied by male guardian outside urban areas. The recommendations though not ratified are a clear indication of the government willingness to handle the issue of women driving in the country.
Women’s Right in Saudi Arabia
The rights of women around the entire world have often suffered many setbacks such as discrimination, limited access to financial opportunities, and limited business experience among others. The challenges that women face regarding their rights often tend to be more severe in the Muslim nations where cultural factors, religion, and a poor environment for entrepreneurship form major deterrents(Baki, 2004). Saudi Arabia is one of the Islamic countries that have been identified to have extreme laws directed against the rights of women.
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According to the 2013 report on the existence of global gender gap, the rights that have been accorded to the women in Saudi Arabia are still far much limited when compared to its Muslim neighbors. Regarding gender parity, the country has been ranked 127th out of the possible 136 countries that were included in the corresponding report. The women in Saudi Arabia are oppressed largely to the maximum by the country’s system. The country’s discriminatory system that guards against the male gender tends to remain in the country despite the various pledges made by the government to abolish them. Under the discriminatory system, there are laid down practices and ministerial policies that have been established and forbidden the Saudi Arabian women from acquiring a traveling passport or a high education without getting clearance from a male guardian who happens to be a father, brother, son, or husband. To some extreme extend, the women are subjected to receive approval from a male guardian in order to get certain medical procedures. The senior council members of the country further made an interpretation to the sharia law that prohibits women from paying a visit to a male doctor without being accompanied by their male guardians (Dekmejian, 2003). The women are further prohibited from exposing certain parts of their body except in a case of medical emergency. Next, women driving is just another aspect that has been banned in Saudi Arabia.
Under the uncodified rules that govern the personal status of the people in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi women are prohibited from marrying without acquiring permission of their assigned guardians. They are not given the unilateral right to practice divorce and are often discriminated in child custody cases. A woman in the country has no right to date since her marriage is solely arranged by her parents. The male counterparts often have the right to marry up to a maximum of four wives, and the women have no right to object to these marriages. In another circumstance, the right of the women in Saudi Arabia, in order to express their voices through a democratic process, was largely suppressed by the law that restricted them from taking part in the voting process. A declaration was made in 2011 by King Abdullah; he gave women the freedom to partake in the country’s 2015 local elections through running for elective offices, partaking in the actual voting process, and getting appointed to the country’s consultative assembly.
The right to a proper job is another right that has been denied the women in Saudi Arabia. In other democratic countries like America, the major complaint has not been about the type of job where women are engaged in but about the equality of payment for the work done. However, in Saudi Arabia, it was found that only 15% of the entire women population have jobs (Hamdan, 2005). The Saudi women are only allowed to work in professions and take up positions where they can only serve other women and not work on the subject of men. The professions include nursing, teaching, and working as staff in banks or stores. The Saudi Arabian woman is not allowed to engage in any duty if it is bound to have any interference with her normal household duties.
In the recent past, however, the people of Saudi Arabia have noticed the greater role that women can play in economic development of the society. Despite being denied the right to education health, employment, and equality in terms of the country’s law, the Saudi women have proved to be more dynamic and have taken challenges that have seen them rise above the restriction and widely participate in social and public life (Hamdan, 2005). One may notice a drastic change in various aspects with most women currently playing successful roles in areas such as being CEOs of major banks in Saudi Arabia, IT experts, medical doctors, and deans of colleges in major universities and other educational institutions within the country (Hamdan, 2005). The women have further started holding key decision-making positions in certain economic areas such as the Saudi Arabia Council of Engineers, the Law Association Council, and the Chamber of Commerce. Most of the government offices have resorted at the same time to appointing women to the various positions of responsibility both at local and national levels.
Saudi Arabia woman has been subjected to the extreme level of unfairness through laid down laws and established religious and cultural laws that deny them their fundamental right to enjoy certain aspects of life just like their female counterparts around the world. The right to drive has been denied to the women because of certain religious and cultural beliefs. However, major uprising through protests and demonstrations happened afterwards, and one may notice the Saudi government actively participating in trying to resolve the controversial issue. The right to drive being denied is only a part of various fundamental rights that the Saudi Arabian women are still deprived of. Such oppression has often led to a global outcry towards major democratic countries advocating for the changes in the law system. The aspect has resulted in more participation of women in the public and private sector, which has been fundamental in terms of developing the country’s economy.