Why Saudi women driving is a small step forward, not a great one

Robin Wright writes: On a scorching day in August, 2006, Wajeha al-Huwaider threw off her abaya, the enveloping black cover worn by Saudi women, and donned a calf-length pink shirt, pink trousers, and a matching pink scarf. She then took a taxi, from Bahrain, to a signpost on the bridge marking the border with Saudi Arabia. She got out and, with a large poster declaring, “Give Women Their Rights,” marched toward her homeland. Within twenty minutes, she was picked up by Saudi security forces, interrogated for a day, and officially warned. An intelligence officer, she recounted to me later, had pointed at her mouth and said, “Control this, and we won’t have a problem.”

Two years later, on International Women’s Day, Huwaider went out in the Saudi desert and, illegally, drove. She made a three-minute video of it—coaching women to claim their rights—and posted it on YouTube. “The problem of women driving, of course, is not political,” she said, as the car bumped along a rural road. “Nor is it religious. It is a social issue.” The video, in Arabic, was viewed by almost a quarter million people. Thousands more watched with various translations. Again, she got in trouble.

Huwaider may finally be able to drive legally next year. On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman ordered that women be given licenses. The country is the last in the world—by many, many years—where women are forbidden to drive. In April, Saudi women launched a social media campaign—with the hashtag #Resistancebywalking—that posted films of them walking in the same streets where they can’t drive. The ban has long been a barometer of the oil-rich but ultra-conservative kingdom’s human-rights abuses, constantly referenced in the State Department’s annual Human Rights Report. The shift, on Tuesday, was sufficiently striking that the Times sent out a breaking-news e-mail about the king’s decree.

There are, however, caveats. The ruling will not go into effect until June, 2018. Women may have to get the permission of their male “guardians” to drive, as they do for many major activities in their life. The biggest issue may be winning the approval of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi clerics, the most conservative of the Islamic faith. The decree stipulated that new regulations must “apply and adhere to the necessary Sharia standards,” a reference to Islamic law. What that means was left unanswered. [Continue reading…]

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