On 24 June, Saudi Arabia lifted its long-standing driving ban for women, rekindling hopes that there would be additional steps towards greater freedoms – particularly for women – in a country notorious for its radical interpretation of Islamic law and its alliance with orthodox forces.
The move is the latest in a series of measures designed by the country's 32-year-old Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman to set both economic and social changes in motion. In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has opened cinemas and held music concerts and fashion shows. But it is the lifting of the driving ban that appears to have energised the Saudi population, resuscitating hopes of more rights to come.
“[Lifting the driving ban] opens a door of hope for millions of women who have thus far been denied the basic right to live freely with dignity
Partner, Trilegal; Co-Chair, IBA Women Lawyers’ Interest Group
Immediately, thousands of women applied for the licence, with many brandishing their new driving permits in front of cameras. Several Saudi women told the local press they were elated to be able to run basic errands such as driving their children to school or shopping for their own groceries. Male drivers received female drivers well, many honking in support during the first day.
Saudi commentators noted the considerable economic benefits: lifting of the ban could add as much as $90bn to economic output by 2030.
In addition, international rights advocates struck a positive note. ‘Although it’s the economic benefit that seems to have forced this decision, this can be termed as the first step towards liberation,’ says Charandeep Kaur, Co-Chair of the IBA Women Lawyers’ Interest Group. ‘It opens a door of hope for millions of women who’ve thus far been denied the basic right to live freely with dignity. The ban on driving was one of the most significant barriers to women’s employment. This is being seen as the most visible social change that will have a positive impression on women’s participation in the workforce, which at present is at 22 per cent of the Saudi workforce.’
Philip Berkowitz, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Diversity and Equality Law Committee, says the decision could introduce more opportunities for women both in business and government. ‘The country has made progress in recent years in recognising the right of women to vote and criminalising domestic violence against women. It is in the Kingdom’s best interests to highlight its relative modernity and progressive culture,’ Berkowitz explains. ‘Doing so may result in further advances in a world in which women increasingly play important leadership roles in government and business.’
Previously, under an alliance of the ruling Saudi family with the ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of thought, Saudi women were banned from public driving. The Wahhabi interpretation of Islam was founded by ultra-orthodox cleric Mohammed bin Abdel Wahhab in 1745. Ever since, his followers have maintained that Saudi women must keep a low profile in society and stay away from mixing with men – especially in public.
Adherents of the Wahhabi doctrine have governed this part of the Islamic world for dozens of years. They still require women to seek permission from a male relative before travelling and that women should always be accompanied by a man. As soon as the news broke that the ban on women driving has been lifted, many Saudi female activists took to social media to call for the removal of male guardianship of women.
‘This must now be followed by reforms to end a whole range of discriminatory laws and practices,’ says Kaur, a partner at Delhi firm Trilegal. She points to neighbouring Dubai, with its liberal climate, as a Muslim model for Riyadh: ‘The biggest issue at the moment is the guardianship system. Saudi Arabia should look to follow the Dubai model – moving to being socially liberal, religiously tolerant, open to the world, friendly to business, efficiently run and governed by a predictable system of laws.’
The argument for better reforms rests in part on Saudi’s repeated public commitments to international laws and treaties. Riyadh has promised to take action to end discrimination against women but has been slow to follow through.‘The international human rights community should do its part to encourage and assist Saudi Arabia to meet these goals as soon as possible,’ says Kaur.
Berkowitz says studies can help convince Riyadh of the benefits: ‘International business and professional organisations can play an important role by focusing programmes, studies and analyses on the positive impacts of the increasing role of women in international law and business.’
Saudi activists have campaigned for this moment for years but as the ban was being lifted, many of those who had publicly advocated for women's rights were arrested. According to Saudi activists and international rights groups, at least 12 women are now behind bars, accused of serious crimes. Saudi state-run media described some of those arrested as ‘traitors’. Their arrests signify that the next battle towards more rights for Saudi women are likely to be lengthy.
‘The Crown Prince, who has styled himself as a reformer with Western allies and investors, should be thanking the activists for their contributions to the Saudi women’s rights movement,’ says Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East Director at Human Rights Watch. ‘Instead, the Saudi authorities appear to be punishing these women’s rights champions for promoting a goal bin Salman claims to support – ending discrimination against women.’
Berkowitz says the arrests could undermine Saudi’s recent moves towards more liberalisation. ‘Repressing advocates of more progressive policies and laws sends exactly the wrong message, and will only hinder the Kingdom’s ability to build its potential as a positive contributor politically and economically, and as an alternative to regimes that are slow to recognise these rights,’ he says.
Kaur believes the arrests of women activists is a warning that Saudi Arabia could slide back on its move towards reforms. ‘It’s a sad irony that the very women who campaigned the hardest for the right to drive now find themselves behind bars and unable to take the wheel. It is also the responsibility of the international community to ensure that Saudi Arabia does not deflect,’ she says. ‘There is a need for a revolution against this perverse attitude. We all have a role to play in this fight for a better life for women living in the region.’