In an age when the President of the United States is making headlines for “rating” famous women on their hotness, it can often feel like global progress is at a standstill. In fact, it can feel like progress is declining at a demoralisingly rapid rate.
That’s why this morning’s news from Saudi Arabia comes at such a critical time. The middle eastern kingdom, well known for its controversial government and policy framework, has opted to lift an archaic ban on women being able to drive.
The Saudi Press Agency reported the reform.
“The royal decree will implement the provisions of traffic regulations, including the issuance of driving licences for men and women alike,” it released in a statement. The legislation to be implemented by June 2018.
The kingdom’s US ambassador, Prince Khaled bin Salman, spoke out to say it was “an historic and big day” and “the right decision at the right time”.
To western eyes, celebration of such an obvious, seemingly fundamental reform may seem farcical. Why celebrate progress so small? But, to dismiss this decision as insignificant would be imprudent.
Human rights groups in the kingdom have campaigned for years to change the policy, but it’s important to note that their actions have been the epitome of courageous. Free speech is hardly encouraged in Saudi Arabia.
Just last month two activists, Issa al-Hamid and Abdulaziz al-Shubaily, both founding members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) were arrested and detained. Their charges ranged from defaming the country’s top religious body to relaying false information to harm the image of the state. Charges which Amnesty International regards as suppression of free speech.
Up until this point, women in Saudi Arabia caught driving, could legally be arrested, fined and in some cases, imprisoned. One woman in 2011, Shaima Jastaina, was even subjected to 10 lashes as punishment for defying the law.
Ultimately, the context behind this policy change, needs to be acknowledged to understand the weight it carries.
For the first time, women will be able to participate fully in the country’s economy. Families will no longer be put under huge financial strains, forced to book imported chauffeurs as well as house them, feed them and insure them. Currently there’s an estimated 800,000 imported chauffeurs ferrying women across Saudi Arabia.
The reform also boldly stands up to religious conservatives who have long held the view that women are too stupid to drive and that allowing them freedom to do so, would result in the “intolerable mingling of the sexes”.
Activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who was detained for 73 days in 2017 for defying the ban, tweeted “thank God” following the announcement.
Manal al-Sharif, another woman previously arrested over the law, tweeted that Saudi Arabia would, “never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop”.
You want a statement here is one: “Saudi Arabia will never be the same again. The rain begins with a single drop” #Women2Drive ❤️
— منال مسعود الشريف (@manal_alsharif) September 26, 2017
Countless other women in Saudi Arabia have spoken out, celebrating their new freedom and debating which cars they’ll be purchasing, using the hashtag #Women2Drive.
It’s an exciting day and a huge, historic win for Saudi Arabian women.