In 2018, news of the Saudi Arabian King’s decision to allow local women to obtain a driver’s license and legally drive a car caught the attention of the whole world. Saudi Arabia is one of the countries in the world where women have some of the most limited rights. Amazing to me that in the 21st century, there are still gender-related limits in the world such as the freedom of mobility.
Although King Salman’s decision does not mean full liberalization of women’s rights—a woman still needs to ask for her husband’s permission to drive a car—it’s a huge step to modern standards.
But what are the true reasons for these drastic changes?
Is this a real step towards gender equity or just another economical advantage for Saudi Arabia?
Let’s start with some history. According to the religious and cultural traditions of Saudi Arabia, women have considerably fewer rights than men do: the Kingdom usually occupies last positions in the international ratings of equity or rights.
- Women’s judicial testimonies are considered to be less valid in comparison to men.
- Women are not allowed to work with men or simply be with them in the same public space unless it’s a healthcare establishment or a bank.
- Women are encouraged not to leave the house alone and need to be accompanied by a guardian or other female friends.
The fight for driving licenses has been long and quite epic. Authorities found as many explanations as possible for the prohibition of female driving. Here were a few that have been stated in the past:
- Driving has a negative impact on the reproductive system.
- Driving gives too much freedom and possibly to interact with men that are not related.
The simplest explanation for me is that women driving was just against their ancient traditions.
When King Salman ascended the throne in 2015, Saudi Arabia seemed to be a hopelessly lagging gerontocracy. It looked like it was unreceptive to changes and hermetically closed from the inside as an ultraconservative Muslim country.
When the new governing body came to power, they immediately started to update all aspects of the Kingdom’s life. They changed the Order of Succession and accepted an ambitious program of social and economic development called “Vision 2030”.
The country aspires to become the face of the new dynamically developing non-European world that harmonically combines its cultural and religious traditions with the present. The realization of “Vision 2030” supports the strategy of the radical renovation of the Kingdom’s image.
Therefore, improving women’s rights in the country would be considered by the rest of the world as a change in perception of Saudi Arabia in general.
On the night when the law came into power, it was exciting to hear about the hundreds of women who set their hands on a car’s steering wheel for the first time and were able to drive freely.
Princess Reem Al-Waleed bin Talal was one of the pioneers. She took her father and children to school the next morning. Fadya Basmer became one of the first female taxi drivers in the history of Saudi Arabia. Many women were inspired to do things they have never experienced before all because they now had the right to drive.
The most obvious economic benefit was an increase on the microeconomic level. Women learning to drive brought a boom to the country’s car sales by 147 percent, and economically enhanced as well the auto insurance industry, driving schools, vehicle repair workshops, and other car related businesses.
Families no longer needed to hire foreign drivers for women family members anymore either. This has the potential to greatly reduce the amount of money transferred annually to other countries to pay for drivers. In 2017, this sum was estimated to be around $1.7 million per year.
Another benefit of women driving is the implementation of the “Vision 2030.” As women received more freedom to move around cities, authorities expect a higher level of women participating in the labor market. Before the change, women found it difficult to obtain work due to lack of specially equipped public transport that were for women only.
Today, the authorities hope that these changes will increase women’s involvement in the labor force by 10 percent. They want to reduce the high unemployment rate among women which had reached up to 21 percent.
Despite any hidden reasons which can benefit the international image and the financial state of Saudi Arabia, it’s such a pleasure to understand that women’s lives have been changed for the better there. Freedom of mobility is one of the cornerstones of a modern life and now Saudi women can participate more readily in the world around them.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Photo attribution: Tribes of the World licensed under Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).