The right to drive is a small, yet significant victory, even though several leading activists are still behind bars.
Dubai, UAE — On June 24, as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia lifted the controversial and suppressive driving ban on women, Mouna Bayoumi hit the road along with her 31-year-old son Mohammed AlSayed, who likes to abbreviate his name to Mo.
The mother and son were excited because Bayoumi was able to drive freely in her native country for the first time.
Bayoumi, 57, had been driving for many years outside of Saudi Arabia, but was never able to do so when she returned home. She has driven in Europe and in Egypt, as well as having owned a UK driver's license. She first started driving in the UK in 1980, during her college years. It was a bittersweet moment — to hold the steering wheel of her son’s, orange Jeep Wrangler, in her home country.
“It is not something I expected would happen in my lifetime. I thought maybe my kids would see it, but me? No. I thought this could never happen. It’s huge,” Mouna says. She taught her son to drive while they were living abroad. Now she says, she is excited for her daughter to get a license.
At midnight on June 24, the much-awaited reform was finally adopted. Saudi women could finally drive through the traffic-choked streets of big cities like Jeddah and Riyadh. To celebrate, they drove in convoys through different neighbourhoods, while many stood on the streets, cheering the ban’s end.
The acknowledgement that came with the lifting of the ban was an important milestone in the pursuit of recognition for women's rights in Saudi Arabia. “Tears, joy, rush of blood, a spin in the head; I am losing control.” That's how 28-year-old activist Dima Ziyad described her feelings as she waited for this much-awaited change for the last two years.
Women in Saudi Arabia are having a euphoric moment, the kind of moment women experienced in the late 1800s as a result of the Suffragette movement that allowed women in Britain the right to vote and participate in elections. The ability to drive for women in Saudi Arabia is part of the overall women’s rights movement. Social and mainstream media is buzzing with excitement that many women feel, with pictures of them holding the steering wheel and showing off their licenses going viral. Mouna says now that she doesn’t need a male family member to drive her around, she feels more liberty, referring to feeling more “fulfilled” as a result.
But Mouna lives in Jeddah, where people are rich and educated, allowing women to live relatively progressive lives. Many women work there and have international licenses. In other parts of Saudi Arabia, there is a sense of nervousness, and even suspicion, that this feeling of liberty might derail the struggle for gender equality. And there are reasons for it.
KSA has not published any numbers officially, but according to local accounts in Jeddah alone, about 30 women can legally drive at the moment, and thousands more have applied.
While thousands are celebrating the lifting of the ban and driving schools popping up, the very activists who fought for the right to drive are currently in prison. Several of the leading activists who challenged the driving ban have been arrested, some as recently as last month, on accusations of treason. And at least three female activists who campaigned for abolishing the ban — Loujain al Hathloul, Eman al Nafjan, and Aziza al Yousef — are still behind bars.
“Lets not forget that this ban has been a symbol of oppression in our country, and that oppression continues while women activists are in prison,” said Dima Ziyad.
The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, dubbed a reformer by many, has avoided trying to tackle other severe restrictions on women in a country that is still bound by the conservatism of Wahhabism, a particularly strict interpretation of Islam.
In said interpretation, gender segregation is a central tenet and has been the backbone of suppressive laws in the country. The segregation has limited women’s access to public space, and their ability to interact freely with society and culture. Gender segregation has been instituted, a building block upon which an infrastructure has been built to favour the needs of a dominant male gender, while women have to improvise their access to life.
Women in Saudi Arabia still have to adhere to a strict dress code, and it is only rarely they can interact with men who are not related to them. Officially, a woman needs to be accompanied by a male guardian or have his written permission, at all times outside of home, including going to the doctor.
Feminist activists in Saudi Arabia are concerned removing restrictions on female drivers could be an attempt to gain favour with Riyadh’s western allies, as the monarchy continues to drag its feet on giving complete freedom to women. Women are still targeted by authorities for minor suspicions, and the ban does not count for the violence they face in the country merely due to their public presence.
The arrests of the activists earlier this year seem to be intended as a message, to not push back or make demands that are out of sync with the government’s policies, sentiments challenged by some foreign diplomats. They also criticise the government's policies as being largely driven by the need to appease conservative elements opposed to reforms, as opposed to with an intention to provide necessary rights.
Some of the women activists were labeled as “agents of the embassies” during their arrests, by the media, a foreign diplomat was quoted by Reuters as saying. “It’s tough because to date we’ve been encouraging of the Saudi reform agenda,” the diplomat told Reuters. “The Saudi government seems to be sending a message to friendly governments not to engage with anyone at all on government-led social reform, even where the messages we are hearing are supportive of the government and echoing what the government’s own international PR campaigns are saying.”
Many experts argue that the lifting of the ban could be related to the 2030 Vision, to move away from the oil economy and allow the country to become more self reliant. According to Ziad Daoud, Dubai-based chief Middle East economist for Bloomberg Economics, as he told Bloomberg, “Lifting the ban on driving is likely to increase the number of women seeking jobs, boosting the size of the workforce and lifting overall incomes and output.”
Experts also speculate that, as a large proportion of women begin to join the workforce, with easier commutes, the country's economic output could increase by $90 billion come 2030.
Women in Saudi Arabia might be allowed to drive now, but this does not account for their social freedom. Getting permission from male guardians remains a key aspect of a woman’s life in the majority of activities, reflecting a still un-evolving attitude towards women's rights.
Women are still not free to travel, marry, divorce or even leave home without permission. The right to drive is a small, yet significant victory for women who will now have more access to social life, as long as they have supportive male family members, like Mouna has her son Mo.