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Saudi Arabia Sees Multiple Effects of Ending Ban on Women Driving

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On June 24, 2018, Saudi Arabia legally permitted women to drive, abolishing the former legislation that had banned women from doing so.

The effort began on September 27, 2017, when Saudi Arabia announced in a royal decree that it would give women permission to drive, take driving lessons, and receive driver’s licenses. To create an environment supportive of women driving, a governmental committee changed some social norms, such as permitting public interaction between unrelated men and women.

Previously, women relied on their male counterparts for transportation to and from work. In larger cities, some women utilized services such as Uber and Careem, which, when used repeatedly, incurs high expenses. Additionally, the subsequent hassle needed for commuting outweighed the benefits of working for many women.

Despite conservatives’ claims that “such acts corrupt society and lead to sin,” Fox News reports, the Saudi Arabian government firmly stood behind its decision. In fact, the main drive behind this reform came from the Crown Prince’s, Mohammed bin Salman, plan to substantially strengthen the Saudi Arabian economy by 2030.

“In order to change women’s participation in the workforce, we need them to be able to drive to work. We need them to move forward; we need them to improve our economy,” said Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States.

Currently, guardianship rules still legally require women to gain a male guardian’s authorization before doing many essential tasks such as attending school and obtaining a passport. The male guardian can be a male relative of any age, including a son. To the highly patriarchal society, allowing women to drive is a severely radical change.

“[Saudi Arabia] was a little late–women should be able to drive just as soon as men should be able to. Hopefully, this will lead to more change [for women] in Saudi Arabia,” said Grace McGhee, sophomore.

To celebrate, companies and activists have demonstrated robust support for the reform. For the first month of the new law, Burger King offered all female drivers who visited Saudi Arabian drive-thrus free Whoppers, which they titled, “WhoppHERs.”

Vogue Arabia’s June 2018 cover touted an image of Princess Hafaya bint Abdullah al-Saud driving a convertible and the caption, “A celebration of the trailblazing women of Saudi Arabia.”

The princess presented her opinion: “Personally, I support these changes [of women driving] with great enthusiasm. It is easy to comment on other people’s societies and think that your own society is superior, but the Western world must remember that each country is specific and unique.”

However, Vogue’s choice of using the princess as the model received criticism. In May 2018, 12 long-time activists for women’s rights–some of the first to advocate for allowing women to drive–were arrested. Some argued that these activists should have posed for Vogue instead. One person tweeted a post that photoshopped the activists’ faces in place of the princess’.

“Can [the princess] actually drive? It’s good that the magazine is portraying her though, as she represents the country and shows that she’s for social progress. But it’d be embarrassing if she doesn’t know how to drive,” said William Poland, Senior.

In addition, in July 2018, Jaguar released a video applauding the Saudi Arabian reform that featured Aseel Al-Hamad, a Saudi Arabian racing driver and the first female board member of the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation. Al-Hamad drove in a Jaguar F-type her first lap on a race track in “[her] beloved country.”

In the video, Al-Hamad said, “One moral behind this today is if you dream, you can always achieve it, and I hope I can inspire women around the world to always follow their dream.”

Jaguar concluded with proposing to make June 24 World Driving Day.

However, this newly gained privilege for women has received lambasts and active resistance.

In July 2018, a group of men attacked a woman for driving. After issuing menacing words, including that her driving was “against the will of God,” they set her car on fire.

The Saudi Arabian government does not appear to fully support its own reform. It has retained the activists mentioned above in prison without officially charging them with a crime after more than 100 days, reports Amnesty International. The government and its loyal newspapers have accused three of them of contacting foreign countries, namely Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s enemy.

Despite the lack of concrete details, the government shows no intention of releasing any arrested activists.

On August 2, 2018, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted, “Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.”

Samar Badawi was at the forefront of petitioning the government for the right to drive, while Raif Badawi has been in prison since 2012 for authoring a dissident blog. Raif Badawi’s wife and children became Canadian citizens on July 1, 2018, and this prompted Freeland’s request for the siblings’ release.

Within hours of Freeland’s tweet, the government recalled its diplomat in Canada and ordered the Canadian ambassador out of the country. According to the Guardian, many countries see this as a message from Prince Mohammed bin Salman declaring his firm grip on power and his decision to silence those who oppose his agenda.

“Lifting the ban should be publicized as much as possible. I know there are other countries, especially in the Middle East, where women’s rights are becoming more of a big deal. I think if we could make women’s rights and how they’re working hard to get these bans lifted accepted as a good thing throughout the world, progress could happen more quickly,” said Carly Hopkins, junior.

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Saudi Arabia Sees Multiple Effects of Ending Ban on Women Driving