Driving licenses for women in Saudi Arabia: What does it mean?

As first Saudi women get driving licenses how important do you find this regarding current developments in Saudi Arabia, is it just an easy reform that makes country look good, or do you think it is something what really changes the society? Read few comments.

Lisa WynnSenior Lecturer, Head of Department of Anthropology, Macquarie University

For Saudi Arabia, it’s a big step for women to get the right to drive.  The international community has long seen the ban on women driving as a symbol of the country’s backwardness.  The country’s leadership clearly hopes that this will raise its international image.

But despite the importance of the symbolism, giving women the right to drive really is only a token of change, for two reasons.

First, it doesn’t change the fact that women still live under the oppressive male guardianship system.  This means that every single woman, regardless of her age, has to have a male “guardian” who controls her right to travel, marry, go to court, study at university, and so on.  A woman can do almost nothing without approval from her male guardian, and the irony is that this rule respects no age-based authority.

For example, a widowed mother’s 16-year old son may be her “guardian”!  The Sydney-based Saudi artist Ms. Saffaa has done a lot to draw attention to the perversity of this system with her “I Am My Own Guardian” artwork (you can google it to find her artwork as the symbol of the movement.

And second, at the same time that women are gaining the right to drive in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government has been arresting the Saudi women activists who were the ones who lobbied so hard for this change.  The crown prince is making it abundantly clear that he will brook no dissent, whether from his powerful royal cousins and wealthy businessmen in society, or from the country’s far less powerful women’s rights activists.

For these two reasons, I see this change as merely tokenistic.  It is aimed at improving the country’s international image without substantively giving women more of a voice in Saudi society.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Fellow for the Middle East, Baker Institute for Public Policy, Rice University

The issue of women driving is a social reform that may in part be intended to try and deflect attention from the far more difficult economic reforms that the Crown Prince is trying to push forward and which are running into difficulty. That said, the recent arrests of women’s rights advocates has shown that even social issues that strike the rest of the world as relatively uncomplicated and wholly uncontroversial are deeply so in Saudi Arabia, and that the Crown Prince may feel vulnerable to pressure or backlash from more conservative elements in Saudi Arabia.

Camille Pecastaing, Senior Associate Professor of Middle East Studies, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University

Clearly it is an easy reform that improves the image of the country, making it look good while other things are going on. But a challenge that face all reformers is that they can never control how a reform process evolves over time. So their is a risk that by introducing change the government initiates unexpected change that it may not desire. No one can predicts how the situation will ultimately evolve in KSA.

Toby JonesAssistant Professor of History, Rutgers University

This is a meaningful change for some women in Saudi Arabia, at least with respect to their ability to move more freely inside the country. But it hardly amounts to sweeping reform. In arresting women who challenged the driving ban just a few weeks, Saudi authorities made clear the limits of how much women (or any Saudis) can push. Reforms that are tightly managed and limited from the top — from the heights of power — are hardly reforms at all. The kingdom is still a deeply authoritarian and repressive place.

Thomas LippmanAdjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute

First of all, never use the word ‘reform’ in connection with Saudi Arabia. The word means improvement, and who are we today what is an improvement in that conservative, religious society? In that culture, one person’s ‘reform’ is another person’s heresy. It’s not up to us to judge.Allowing women to drive is an economic necessity. Their role in the economy is growing, more women are working, and the country needs them to be productive. This change was inevitable.

James M. DorseySenior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University

For women its of course a real change. One day they couldn’t drive, the next they could. It gives them greater mobility, reduces their costs and allows them to be more productive. Having said that, Saudi Arabia needed to do so to increase national productivity, reduce dependence on foreign and expatriate labour, and diversify the economy. Its but one step in achieving women’s rights as well as social and economic reform.


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