By Camilla Caraccio
International Women's Initiative News Writer
From Riyadh to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative patriarchal system prohibits women from a long list of routine behaviors, ranging from applying makeup that “shows off their beauty” to gaining financial independence to staying up late at night. A male guardian is supposed to accompany a woman around the clock, and his permission dictates nearly all the activities that a woman can or cannot do, including going to the grocery store and opening a bank account. Women in Saudi Arabia are routinely punished, segregated against, and deprived of job opportunities. They are required to adhere to a strict code of conduct when in public, covering their entire bodies and avoiding association with men with whom they are not related.
One of the most obvious illustrations of gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia, and perhaps one of the most impactful on women's well-being, is the ban on women's driving. Since Saudi Arabia doesn’t have reliable and affordable public transportation, women depend almost entirely upon male relatives and often have no choice but to turn to hired drivers to run daily errands. But not all women can afford private drivers, rendering them immobile and isolated from public life.
The inability to drive also bears heavily upon women’s ability to find suitable employment. According to the International Labor Organization, Saudi women represent less than 20% of the national workforce. Of those women who do work, their employment remains concentrated in a narrow range of sectors and, until very recently, they couldn't access higher profile jobs. As late as 2013, the country registered its first female trainee lawyer and saw its first female Saudi police officer. The links between the prohibition on female driving and obstacles to employment might be difficult to ascertain, but it is likely that the immobility resulting from the inability to drive has hampered many women's career possibilities.
Women in Saudi Arabia have also long been excluded from political life. In fact, 2015 saw the first official election in which women could vote and stand as candidates. While only 1.32 million men and 130,000 women out of a population of 20 million voted, an unprecedented number of women won in different regions across the country, and the election has been hailed as a major step towards women’s public engagement in civic life. Despite the positive steps taken in the recent election, progress in other areas of social life remains slow.
Financial justifications for the ban on female drivers
Official government statements concerning the ban on female drivers claim that it is a “societal issue” that falls beyond the purview of the government. Does this statement indicate that the government holds the country’s ultraconservative culture, and not its state policies, responsible for the persisting stigma against female drivers? In her prominent blog that focuses on women's rights issues, Eman Al-Nafjan argues that the prohibition is not solely the outcome of deeply ingrained beliefs and misogynistic biases but rather of other factors.
To this end, in an article published in Aleqtisadiah Newspaper on July 2014, Dr. Mohammed bin Saud Al Masoud lays out three primary financial implications of lifting the ban on female drivers. First, lifting the ban would result in big losses for government bodies that charge fees for visas for male foreign drivers; one and a half million drivers’ visas are worth around US$666 million. Second, 85% of the private taxi business depends upon women seeking transportation in big cities, generating sums amounting to US$1.3 million. Third, experts say that, under the current ban, the number of foreign drivers is bound to continue to rise considerably. These statistics indicate that there are at least some financial motivations behind the ban on female drivers.
Calls for reforms
Saudi women have made several recent efforts to voice their discomfort with their situation and demand reforms, including through a social media campaign called Women2Drive. Aimed at securing the right to drive for women in Saudi Arabia, the campaign received more than 18,000 likes on Facebook. Following this campaign, an advisory council to King Abdullah recommended in 2014 to lift the ban, albeit with significant limitations. Although the campaign has lost momentum over time, it has had a tremendous and reverberating impact. Among many other people inspired by Women2Drive, 24-year-old Trisha Calvarese was motivated to launch her Honk for Saudi Women campaign in which people from around the world defy the ban and submit videos of themselves honking their car horns in support of Saudi women. Such grassroots movements may have not succeeded in achieving full legal permission for women to drive, but they have been formidable in raising awareness and ignited public debate.
Lacking a legal dimension
Regardless of whether the ban is the product of pervasive misogyny, a conservative religious establishment or more material factors, no law explicitly forbids women to drive. The absence of an official legal dimension has, in fact, made it easier for those content with the status quo to trivialize the prohibition rather than to treat it as a serious human right violation.
According to Human Rights Watch, the informal ban on female driving in Saudi Arabia became official state policy in 1990. After having seen female American soldiers driving on military bases in their country during the Gulf War, dozens of Saudi women took to the roads of Riyadh to protest the restriction. In response, state authorities jailed them and suspended them from their jobs, and the Grand Mufti – the country’s highest religious authority – immediately declared a “fatwa” against female drivers. The religious edict states that such a Western-like practice would expose women to “evil,” lead to “social chaos,” and jeopardize their safety. "Driving cars could mean the opening of floodgates that would not be controllable," said Saudi Arabia Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh in defense of the ban. Although the Ministry of Interior Prince Nayef banned women’s driving by decree on the basis of the fatwa, the fact remains that no written law technically bars women from driving.
Putting women behind the wheel
Saudi Arabia has frequently come under fire for its poor human rights record. The World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia 134 out of 145 countries in its 2015 Global Gender Gap Index, noting that the wide gap between women and men in civic participation and economic empowerment has yet to be closed. As noted by Human Rights Watch, the country’s change in leadership in 2015 did little to mark the breakthrough that activists have long been hoping for. Saudi Arabia has a long way to go in enshrining human rights, with women systemically discriminated against and considerably more vulnerable than their peers elsewhere in the Middle East and the rest of the world.
This limitation on gender equality has long been tolerated, but the profound impact it has on the quality of women's life should not continue any longer. To shake up the status quo, policymakers need to acknowledge the complexities of the issue – not only its cultural roots but also the relevant material considerations – and above all lay out the many benefits that would stem from ending the ban and integrating women into civic life. In other words, Saudi state institutions and infrastructures, as well as social practices, must change to meet women's needs and human rights standards, rather than the other way round.