Saudi Arabia, known as the birthplace of Islam, has long maintained a social ban that forbade a woman’s right to drive. This ban prohibited women from the freedom of having a schedule and a life that exists outside the presence of their husbands, a human right that should come with modern life in a 21st century world.
On June 24, 2018, the world’s final ban prohibiting women from driving around at free will was removed in Saudi Arabia. This right, a right that has always existed for men, was finally equalized for women on a global basis. For years, the women of Saudi Arabia have had to fight for equal consideration within their country. While many laws still diminish their capacity to act as an independent, including their inability to withhold a job outside the home, their activism is certainly not a lost cause. Within the past decade, the women of Saudi Arabia achieved two life-changing rights with the authority to vote as of 2015 and, now, the lifted driving ban.
The right to drive is a right that transcends gender. The opportunity to move about freely in the world, even without a purpose, shapes the new reality for women in Saudi Arabia. Beyond the fact that driving laws should not factor in gender, it is an unrealistic inconvenience to modern life. Sometimes things happen, children get sick or a wife goes into labor while her husband is out. Sometimes, going for a drive in the car is exactly what you need, whether that drive is to watch the sunset and release a stressful day or a drive to the hospital in an emergency. These activities do not depend on gender. Rather, they express freedom. They demonstrate life. And all people, men and women alike, have a right to life.
While the ban removal is monumental for the country, it means something much greater than simply the approval of a woman in the driver’s seat of a car. It brings to light the history of Saudi Arabia and pushes the world forward in its feminist movements. Saudi women have suffered a lack of rights that are commonplace in the majority of the world… So why is it this country is so far behind in their treatment of women? What does the lifting of this ban mean for their future?
The intersection between the Islamic religion and society largely encourages strict laws regarding a woman’s place in society. Saudi Arabia, as the mecca of the Hajj and housing the most important Islamic tradition, is notorious for several laws that limit a woman’s right to consideration. Consider the fact that women only recently received the right to vote as evidence to this notion. Despite the equal rights momentum they are generating, women are still required to have a male guardian in many situations that usually only require one active individual. These scenarios include the decision to marry, travel outside the country, sign a contract, and others. Many of these laws extend into other countries that were once part of the Islamic empire.
Such laws have persisted on account of long standing religious beliefs and early defined cultural systems. Tradition is hard to reverse and reports of apprehension on behalf of some women and disapproval by some Saudi men come with the territory of change. That said, for the most part, women everywhere are celebrating- especially those who have suffered the silence of being enchained by their husbands rule. In 2017, when the law was first announced to be lifted the following year, women rejoiced…One woman reported to BBC upon this announcement, “I was very, very excited, jumping up and down and laughing. I’m going to buy my dream car, a convertible mustang, and it’s going to be black and yellow!”
There is much that remains to be overcome in the kingdom as their inability to work outside the home and their activism is still punished… In May of 2018, seven women’s rights activists were detained for speaking out against their unequal treatment and charged with working with “foreign entities.” The women were working towards more equality and basic human rights. Their right to free speech is clearly still not permissible behavior… Though the odds are heavily stacked against them, little by little, women around the world are finally finding their voices. They are shifting the world. They are changing their own lives. They are standing up against outdated systems and perspectives that make them small.
The rigorous laws that women are forced to comply with around the world and particularly in the Middle East are being challenged by many movements for equality. Tradition that has long supported the belittlement of a woman’s liberties is evolving. Women that have been silenced, hidden under dark clothing, waiting for their husbands to return from work before leaving the house, are becoming braver, fighting back… and the best part is, the world is finally listening. Silenced voices are now the loudest of all.
ELEANOR DAINKO is an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia studying Spanish and Latin American Interdisciplinary Studies. She recently finished a semester in Spain, expanding her knowledge of opportunity and culture as it exists around the world. With her passion to change the world and be a more socially conscious person, she is an aspiring entrepreneur with the hopes of attending business school over seas after college.