A very belated look at the response to the announcement that in June this year, women will be issued driving licences and permitted to drive in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
On September 27th my social media went wild. King Salman and the Saudi Arabian government had announced that women were to be allowed to drive and be formally issued driving licences, by June 2018. This is a huge step for a conservative country, which now has an increasingly young population, where many are keen to see reforms happens. We are living through important moments in Saudi Arabia’s history.
Being able to drive is not only about gaining equal rights but also opens doors for women in the country. Saudi Arabia has more female than male university students and yet the number of women in professional roles is comparatively small. This is in part due to the complications with transport. It is a huge expense to hire a driver or taxi to and from work/school, not to mention the safety and religious issues surrounding travelling with an unfamiliar man. It allows women to begin playing a bigger part in Saudi society and driving the country forward, no longer stuck in the backseat.
What has been interesting to watch is the various responses from locals, expats and those around the world.
The majority of Saudis have responded as expected, with excitement, emotion and hope for continued progression. There has been some negativity from more conservative parts of society but there have also been photos shared of husbands, brothers and sons beginning to teach the women in their lives how to drive on private roads; car companies releasing advertisements aimed at the future female drivers; a prominent women’s university has announced that they will be opening a female driving school.
The response from expats has also been positive, appreciating this move as a step forward for women’s rights and for the extra freedoms it offers expat women. There have been the expected jokes about the streets becoming more dangerous with women “let loose” on the roads. Unfortunately, there are those who have said they will not be driving due the risky conditions on the road. This is not an unfounded fear, the driving on Saudi roads is hazardous and accident and fatality numbers are high. However, expat and local women alike should take to the roads and celebrate the equal right they have been given. There is definitely no reason for us to be safer with drivers and taxis than behind the wheels ourselves.
Views from around the world have been mixed. Little is known about life in the Kingdom and so comprehending this change in law and what it means is understandably tricky. People have congratulated the country and those living here on the lifting of the ban. Articles have been written sensitively, welcoming this as evidence of Saudi Arabia’s social reform and progress. It has been hard to read comments dismissing the move as unimportant when considering other areas of Saudi’s human rights record. Yes, the country is still conservative in a lot of ways and decisions and laws are still very restrictive, even harsh, compared to those in many countries of the world. However, the government must start somewhere and it is not an unimportant decision for women, and indeed the whole community, here. It is a cause for celebration and most women here are doing just that.