On today Wednesday 2017, Saudi Arabia surprise decision to grant women the right to drive rattled everyone in the kingdom, bringing cheers from rights activists and young people and a serious grumbling from others who say they will never let their wives and daughters drive a car.
This sudden change demonstrates how the power of ultraconservatives and hard-line Islamic fundamentalists to impose their will has weakened as the kingdom’s 32-year-old crown prince steams ahead with sensitive reforms under his father, King Salman.
The lifting of the ban is the most dramatic step yet in a campaign by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to modernize the kingdom to boost the country’s economy and ease international criticism. A decision which is not going down well with most men, radical clerics and others who adhere to the ultraconservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam in the kingdom.
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The young royal ability to ram through reforms suggests conservatives, even if they represent a significant portion of the population, are unwilling to defy the crown prince and king and unable to shore up opposition from other royals within society.
The first driving campaign by activists started in 1990, women who got behind the wheels of their cars in the capital, Riyadh then, lost their jobs, faced severe stigmatisation and were barred from travel abroad for a year as punishment.
“It’s been 27 years of demanding and asking, but a whole lifetime of suffering,” said Dalal Kaaki, who joined the protest movement years later. “I can’t really celebrate because every time I come to celebrate I remember all the years of suffocation. … Of trying to arrange transportation to work and having to beg people at home to take me to run errands.”
“I’m feeling a mix of joy and disbelief, but I’m also grateful that my grandchildren won’t have to go through what I went through,” she said.
The move was praised by world leaders. The White House said President Donald Trump views the change as “a positive step toward promoting the rights and opportunities of women in Saudi Arabia.”
The decision to allow women to drive may have taken decades of struggle, but it also came swiftly and as a surprise.
Just three years ago, two Saudi women were detained for more than two months for defying the ban on driving. Others were detained over the years during various efforts by women’s rights activists to drive. Often, police would detain a female driver until a male relative could pick her up and sign a pledge on her behalf that she would not drive again.
In some instances, women had their cars confiscated for months. In 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring protests, a Saudi woman was sentenced to 10 lashes for driving, although the Saudi king at the time overturned the sentence.
Under the new guidelines, all Saudi women will be allowed to drive by next summer and they will not require the permission of a male relative to obtain a driver’s license.
Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world still barring women from driving as their counterparts in other Muslim countries drove freely.
Sahar Nasief, who lives in in the Red Sea city of Jiddah, was actively campaigning for women to drive. She could drive in the U.S., Egypt and neighboring Dubai on visits, but not in her own country. She said she couldn’t believe the news when her son called to tell her.
“Things have to change. People are demanding it,” she said. “Young people don’t want to live the way we lived. They want to live better. They want to live how other people are living.”
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince is set to inherit a country where more than half the population is under 25 years old and 70 percent are under 35. Millions are active users of social media, where criticism of the government is rife.
To appeal to these young people, boost local spending and improve the country’s image abroad, Prince Mohammed bin Salman has opened the country to more entertainment, allowing music concerts and even a Comic-Con event as part of a wide-ranging push to reform the economy and society.
This year, the government announced that for the first time girls in public schools would be allowed to play sports and have access to physical education. Last year, the state curtailed the powers of the religious police.
The crown prince is seen as the driving force behind these rapid changes, despite Saudi Arabia’s history of cautious, incremental reform.
For years, senior Saudi clerics warned against allowing women to drive. They said in religious decrees that driving would “lead to licentiousness that can devastate the entire community” and that “allowing women to drive contributes to the downfall of the society.”
Three years ago, the country’s top cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, said barring women from driving “was in the best interest of society” because it protected them from having to deal with an accident.
Today Wednesday 27th of Sept, 2017, the country’s top council of clerics — overseen by Al Sheikh— appeared to publicly back the decree.
The council said in a statement that King Salman had taken a decision based on what he deemed was in the best interests of his country and in safeguarding its Islamic values.
The Council of Senior Scholars said past fatwas, or religious edicts, opposed to women driving had “focused on evils, but not on driving itself, which is not forbidden.” The royal decree issued late Tuesday noted that the majority of those scholars had now agreed that it is permissible in Islam for women to drive.
This is a very good news for women in the kingdom but there are still a lot more to do.
Here are some of the hurdles women still face in the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom:
Under Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islamic law, a male guardianship system bars woman from travelling abroad, obtaining a passport, marrying or even leaving prison without the consent of a male relative. This consent is also often demanded whenever a woman tries to do any number of things, including rent an apartment, buy a car, undergo a medical procedure, open a bank account or take a job. As a result, women are practically consigned to the status of minors for their entire lives. No other Muslim country enforces such strict guardianship measures. Basically, in Saudi Arabia Kingdom women are just a glorified slave.
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ABILITY TO SERVE IN TOP GOVERNMENT POSITIONS
There are no women in charge of government ministries in Saudi Arabia and there has been no woman ruler since the kingdom’s founding in 1932. Saudi women can, however, run and vote in local elections though ultimate power resides with the throne. The same day as the driving decree, Saudi Arabia also announced its first spokeswoman for its embassy in Washington, a high-profile role.
SEGREGATION OF THE SEXES
Saudi Arabia’s enforcement of gender segregation means women cannot attend sporting matches or sit in restaurants that do not have separate “family” sections. These rules also impact the ability of some employers to hire women were segregated office spaces are not available. Privately, the segregation rules often relegate women to the home unless a male relative, such as a father or brother, is available to escort them outside. Many conservative families also bar male cousins from seeing their female cousins past childhood age. With all these restrictions one can’t but wonder why immorality is so high among Muslim men.
RULES ON WHAT THEY CAN WEAR
Women in Saudi Arabia must wear long, loose robes known as abayas in public. Most also cover their hair and face with a black veil, though exceptions are made for visiting dignitaries.
DIVORCE AND OTHER ISSUES
If a woman divorces her husband, she cannot travel abroad with their children without the permission of the father, who remains the children’s legal guardian. Women cannot provide consent for their daughters to marry, or pass their nationality to their children. Women also are not afforded equal inheritance rights nor are they guaranteed custody of children after the age of seven or eight years old.
All in All victory for the women of Saudi Arabia at last and hopefully more will come as the prince and the clerics have already agreed for girls to start participating in sports at local school levels.