For most of us in the Western world, driving is synonymous with freedom and independence. We rarely think twice about this everyday privilege. However, in Saudi Arabia, until just five years ago, women weren’t legally allowed to get behind the wheel. Over the past few years, the Kingdom has witnessed significant changes in the sphere of women’s rights, especially when it comes to driving. The long-standing ban on women getting behind the wheel was lifted, marking a significant landmark. Nonetheless, as we examine the progress made, we must ask: what progress has been achieved for Saudi women drivers?
The lifting of the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia on June 24, 2018, attracted significant international attention. In a significant departure from its conservative traditions, Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow women to drive appeared to be a substantial leap toward gender equality. More specifically, the decree allowed women to apply for driver’s licenses and enjoy a newfound sense of independence. The decision was part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vision for a more modern and progressive Saudi Arabia, an attempt to improve the country’s worldwide image. However, as we delve deeper into the situation, it becomes evident that the road to equality is fraught with complexities and contradictions.
The reality of women driving in Saudi Arabia diverges from the theoretical framework delineated in official documents. More specifically, women continue to encounter a multitude of challenges. Lifting the ban was just the first step towards change, and various societal, legal, and cultural restrictions continue limiting women’s ability to drive freely. While progress has been achieved, the system’s influence persists, making it an ongoing challenge for women to fully enjoy their rights and freedoms, including the right to drive independently.
In Saudi Arabia, there is currently a legal male guardianship system, which governs the majority of the aspects of Saudi women’s lives. According to Saudi Arabian law, with the birth of a Saudi woman, her father assumes the role of her legal guardian. Subsequently, upon her marriage, her husband becomes her legally documented guardian. This means that these guardians will accompany Saudi women throughout their whole lives. This system limits women’s autonomy, including their ability to obtain driver’s licenses and travel without male permission. Hence, although there have been positive steps, the legal and cultural ramifications of the guardianship system persist. Many Saudi women continue to need male permission for various aspects of their lives, making it difficult to embrace the freedoms these reforms intend to offer fully.
The challenge now lies in understanding who genuinely benefits from these reforms. This means that while the recent changes provide new opportunities for women fortunate to be born into or marry into families that support their independence, a significant portion of Saudi women lack a benevolent male guardian, diminishing the impact of these changes. Even though the male guardianship law was abolished, and the government no longer legally enforces strict control over women, many of them are still subject to such authority, preventing them from enjoying the full benefits of these reforms’ societal openings.
In conclusion, what progress has been achieved for Saudi women drivers? The answer is that while progress has been made, complete freedom remains elusive. While there has been some improvement, these reforms are far from comprehensive. Cultural, legal, and societal barriers persist, limiting the full realization of women’s right to drive. Women in Saudi Arabia will only be able to enjoy the freedom and equality they deserve once they are independent from the guardianship of male relatives. It is imperative that we continue to advocate for change and raise awareness about the challenges that persist in Saudi Arabia.