Women’s and Gender Studies
Women’s and Gender Studies
The right of women to drive represents a unique case in the Middle Eastern women’s rights movements because up until the cancellation of the ban in 2017, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world that had such a limitation except for non-country formations such as ISIS. Although there was never a formal ban on driving for women, the ‘law’ was enforced and practiced for decades. The ban and its consecutive overturning revealed many issues in the Saudi society. Many of these issues resulted from religious and cultural backgrounds that held certain problematic views about how the genders related to one another. This paper is focused on the underlying reasons for the driving ban, the history of the women’s movement against the ban, the reasons of why the ban hurts the society of Saudi Arabia, and the reasoning behind the overturning of the ban. In essence, the paper is ultimately focused on examining how the driving ban limited the capacity of women to operate on a social, political, and economic level the same way their male counterparts did. As such, future predictions following the lifting of the ban are likely to show increased capacity of women to gain economic independence as well as a right of movement.
Despite some progressive initiatives compared to other fundamental states in the Middle East, up until the end of 2017, Saudi Arabia remained the only country in the world with a prohibition for women to drive. Interestingly, the ban on the women driving has never been issued in the written form, but derived from the legal fact that women in the country were not issued the licenses that would allow them to drive. The scholars from the country were known to highly support the ban, with a declaration that it fits into the characteristics of a haram, or a forbidden sin. Women in Saudi Arabia have been regarded as minors owing to the political and social setting that requires them to have male guardians. The guardians are in effect the ones who hold the rights, which can be provided through written approvals.
The culture of female ownership has since perpetuated the ban on driving, as it indicates some level of independence on the part of women. The system, which has since been termed as a form of gender apartheid, has limited the rights of women in many ways, one of the most significant of which is the right to movement and drive by oneself. This system has also come under heavy criticism, and is seen as essentially violating some of the fundamental human rights as provisioned by the United Nations. The socio-political system also perpetuates some of the gender roles that have been held for decades since the birth of the nation. These gender roles are significantly limiting, especially in a changing world that requires social, economic, and political participation of all members of the society. It also raises challenges on achieving equality among the sexes.
Justifications for the Driving Ban
The justifications that were given to such declaration highly varied. Among them, there were proclamations that driving makes women uncover their faces, which it makes them leave the house too often. In Saudi Arabia, women are required to cover themselves from head to toe, with a dress known as the Abaya. Reasons for this requirement are both religious and cultural. Therefore, uncovering their bodies and hair would mean going against the long-held traditions. In other simpler justifications, it was “inappropriate” for women to drive, according to the Saudi culture (Hubbard). The author also states “male drivers would not know how to handle having women in cars next to them” (Hubbard par 7).
From a religious perspective, the ban on driving was considered a good decision because Saudi women essentially “lacked the intellect” that men possessed. According to Farrell, a cleric protested lifting of the ban because it would pose danger in the road. Because women prayed less (as they do not pray during their menstruation), they generally lacked the brainpower that men had. For this reason, they were unfit to be behind the wheel (Farrell). This move to ban women from driving was effected as a way to segregate men and women from public interactions. It was a move that was justified by interpretations from the section of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism.
Another justification was that driving would inevitably result in women having to interact with the non-mahram males. Mahram males comprise of the woman’s immediate male relatives including father, uncle, or brother. In essence, these are the male relatives that a woman can be allowed to have as escorts when she travels. Additionally these are male relatives that are not allowed to marry the woman. Interaction with non-Mahram males therefore poses concern for the moral codes of the society. According to Hubbard, the justification of women not being able to drive was that it would prevent such interactions, therefore preventing promiscuity among women.
Other justifications for the ban centered on keeping women safe from harm. It was typically assumed that women would be safer when men drove. Other justifications were that driving rights would encourage women to go out alone, and would be exposed to risk of harm from male perpetrators (Benjamin). In some rather interesting and unfounded justifications, women should not be allowed to drive because it would negatively affect their reproductive systems. Sheikh Saleh bin al-Lohaidan, a Saudi cleric, maintained that women driving resulted in shifting of the pelvis. He further noted that many women who drove had children with various types of health problems (Waxman).
Other reasons of the ban were quite as problematic, such as the statement that women in automobiles will overcrowd the streets, making the men suffer from the lack of space on the road (Al Alhareth et al, 2015). This presented deep-seated issues of women not being allowed to take up spaces where men were present, and were thus sidelined and marginalized in detrimental ways. The fact that women were not allowed to drive in areas where men drove because of increased congestion implied that men in effect had more rights to public spaces than women. It therefore provided serious implications about how women were seen as second-class citizens in the country.
Another problematic justification was that driving contributes to the erosion of the traditional values, such as gender segregation. Such argument represents a typical slippery slope logical fallacy, which, however, was well received by the social groups that are known to be inclined towards political populism. This type of populism is aimed at maintaining the status quo of the genders as a way of keeping the peace. It also aims to maintain the existing gender hierarchy in which men are allowed more rights to own spaces, travel, and seek economic advantages at the expense of their female counterparts. In some cases, the social groups have sought change in peaceful ways that are void of protest and unrest, despite these attempts proving futile.
The argument supporting gender segregation is also highly problematic even in a country such as Saudi Arabia, which is known to follow Islamic tradition. Gender segregation, like many other forms of its kind, gives rise to many forms of social, political, and economic inequalities. It also creates opportunities for social hierarchies, which are categorized according to members in these various groups. In the case of Saudi Arabia, gender segregation has led to many women being limited in terms of their movement, autonomy, health, and legal status, among many other rights. Therefore, the argument to support the driving ban on the grounds of gender segregation is highly problematic, and implies various negative attitudes towards Saudi Arabian women in general (Manea).
Implications of the Ban
Many women in Saudi Arabia had a very practical need to drive, and the welfare of both themselves and their family highly depended on this skill (Doumato). Because of this fact, driving was somehow tolerated in the rural areas of the country, due to the more apparent dependence of the family’s survival on it, and the inability of the mutaween (Islamic religious police) to patrol the areas.
The criticism of the ban based on women’s qualification is not supported by the Quran. This is perhaps the reason why Saudi Arabia is the only Islamic state in the world that has enforced this rule. Therefore, the argument that some of the clerics and other social conservatives made about religious requirements are invalidated. Moreover, the gender segregation in the society, supported by these conservative groups of the society, is further violated by the driving ban, because women who have to move are forced to take the taxis or hire the drivers (Al Alhareth et al). This means that their interaction with non- males is increased. It therefore poses a retrogressive approach towards furthering a cause of their idea of moral preservation.
From an economic perspective, the ban on driving has detrimental impacts on women who are not able to afford drivers. Additionally, another core aspect of why this issue is problematic is the fact that driving with a hired driver puts the financial burden on the families (Al Alhareth et al). Since working women in Saudi Arabia have limited financial independence, many of them have to sacrifice almost a half of their monthly income to get the job because of the ban on driving (Doumato). As a result, the education and employment possibilities of women are highly limited, depending on the financial situation in the families.
Some women simply have no ability to afford to have a job because their supposed salary will not outweigh the cost of paying to get to place of a job (Doumato). What is more, the male taxi drivers often put women at risk, with the complaints about sexual harassment. The public transport in the country did not have a sufficient system to distribute the workers between their houses and the place of working, especially if the women are living in the relatively distant areas (Doumato). Moreover, the public transport system is quite often regarded as unreliable or even dangerous.
Women’s rights to use the alternative means of transport, such as public transportation, are also vastly limited. The justification for this fact bears resemblance with the similar justifications for the previously existing driving ban, with the potential risk of mixing with a non-mahram man being one of the central justifications (Al Alhareth et al). In case women are allowed to enter the transport, it is usually required for them to use a separate entrance. In the end, the decision to let or not to let women into public transport vastly depends on the regulation of the bus companies, with some of them choosing not to allow women on board. In essence, the driving ban puts significant limitations on women. It increases the unemployment rates, decreases capacity for movement, and prevents women from participating in economic activities. For the middle to lower income families, women who work are the most severely affected by this ban. For decades, the driving ban has marginalized women “to the point of total exclusion” (Manea par 12).
Women’s Rights Movements against the Driving Ban
The ban on women driving has resulted in the formation of a significant women’s rights movement in the country that has been active ever since the first protest against the ban in 1990. In November of that year, the protests that took place in Riyadh had dozens of women drew the streets of the city with the valid licenses issued in other countries only to be arrested. This marked one of the first significant protests of the driving ban. It was highly criticized among the conservative groups across the country. The women were only released after the written statements from their guardians who signed that women promise to never drive again.
The protest caused the counter-protest, in which the posters with the names of women and their husbands have held all throughout the city. The first protesters faced explicitly harsh consequences. They were either fired or suspended from their respective jobs, with their passports being taken away. Many of them were also detained for varying periods after which they were released. Though the passports were consequently returned several years later, women were continuously kept under the strict surveillance. They had no right to voice their protests to a broader audience, as there was no possibility for them to discuss the issue in the press or elsewhere.
The legal discussion of women’s right to drive was largely brought to life in 2007 when Wajeha al-Huwaider and other female activists issued a petition asking King Abdullah to issue them driving permit. One of the advantages that the movements possessed was the need for Saudi Arabia to globalize and connect with the rest of the world, especially the western states. This would mean that some of the radical socio-cultural settings would be eradicated. Social media, another powerful tool, has further increased the awareness of the plight of women in the country. Subsequently, it has rallied many in the international community and human rights groups behind these women, thereby putting more pressure in the Kingdom. In 2008, an activist for female rights released a video in which she was seen driving in the rural areas of the country, causing the growing interest in the issue both from the international women rights activists and the local leaders of the movement. The movement was reborn with the new power again in 2011, when the Arab spring motivated women to voice their concerns about the driving ban once again. In June of that year, hundreds of women were arrested while driving in the streets of various cities throughout Saudi Arabia (Al Alhareth et al). In September, one of the women was sentenced to a public lashing under the Sharia law, but the decision was overturned after a public backlash. The consecutive stage of protest in 2013 resulted in the Interior Ministry spokesperson reaffirming a permanence of the ban. However, in 2017, King Salman canceled the ban, issuing women’s right to drive to become legitimate effective from June 2018 (Hubbard).
Lifting of the Ban and its Effects
In 2017, King Salman agreed to lift the ban on women driving, a ruling that would be effected by June 2018. This marked a historic period that changed the course of women’s rights across the country. According to Hubbard, the decision to overturn the ban carried underlying implication of the oppression of women, which over time, had grown to become a global symbol. Despite the fact that the protests surrounding the ban demonstrated the excellence and the high activity of women’s rights movement in Saudi Arabia, the decision to overturn the ban was mostly issued in an attempt to preserve the international reputation of the kingdom (Hubbard).
The author also states that that the kingdom hopes to renew its relationship with the international community. Therefore, a significant note of concern would be the reasons leading to the ban. If the reasons were to save face in the eyes of the international community, then it would mean that it was not in response of the decades-long protest of women’s rights movements. This would imply a lack of consideration for the concerns of women in the country by the kingdom. However, it is possible that the kingdom faced pressures from both the women’s rights movements as well as the external communities.
A second significant factor that led the decision to be issued was a desire of the kingdom’s official to receive some economic benefits from the increased participation of women in labor and the economy (Hubbard). Because the country is moving towards an economic structure that is not centered on oil for revenue, it has found the importance of involving more people in the workforce. As such, the lifting of this ban presents excellent opportunities for women to access their jobs, thereby reducing unemployment rates. According to Hubbard, the driving ban has heralded yet another economic opportunity for carmakers. Automobile companies are now able to advertise cars that are targeted towards women in particular following the ban. Before this, cars such as the Subaru, which were directed towards women, saw no need of advertising in a nation where women were not allowed to drive (Hubbard).
The law on the issue is expected to be one of the most progressive laws today that target women, as they will be given a right to obtain the driving license without the written agreement from their male guardians. While the ban has been widely embraced as a move towards the right direction by Saudi woe and the international communities, protests have since arisen, especially among conservative groups such as the religious clerics.
Lifting the ban will have important implications on how men and women relate to one another in social spaces. It will mean an increased level of accessibility for women, especially those in the working class sectors. The move may also imply a move towards affording women with more rights that require them to travel and carry out other activities without supervision of their male guardians. In essence, the right to move from one place to another without the need for approval and with a capacity to drive oneself is a significant step towards achieving empowerment for women in a nation that has notoriously sidelined them in almost every aspect of the society.
The driving ban that existed in Saudi Arabia before King Salman’s ruling was fueled by traditional and conservative views about how the genders relate to one another on a social and economic level. For Saudi Arabia, men and women are not allowed to interact in certain social spaces, which give rise to many problematic issues. It also enforced gender segregation, which as examined, brought about many limitations. Most of these limitations were experienced by women and not men. Elimination of the ban on driving has been issued by the leaders of Saudi Arabia due to the reasons related to the countries’ foreign politics and economy. However, it signals a possible future improvement of the women’s rights in the country in general. Most of the activists who have supported the elimination of the driving ban did so not for the sake of driving itself, but because permission to drive for them largely meant the permission to perform their daily routines more efficiently. Since it might be concluded that the government of Saudi Arabia has largely undertaken a pragmatic approach towards women’s rights, it might be predicted that a right to drive would be one of many rights issued to women in Saudi Arabia. The right to drive for women also signals a new era where women are able to participate in the nation’s economy, and thus achieve more independence.
Improvement of the Essay
Essentially, the subject in
question was a rather complex subject to broach due to the impact that it posed
as far as the treatment of women is concerned. While it was outrightly
prejudicial for Saudi Arabia to prohibit women from exercising a right as
inherent as driving, the topic also presents related issues such as the
implications derived from the religion of Islam and the culture, which is
understandably patriarchal by nature (Coleman 55). Nonetheless, in respect to
the essay, a few changes were made as per the instructions provided by the
professor. Foremost, a thesis statement was added for the aim of establishing
the essay’s premise. The establishment of a clear and succinct thesis statement
is an essential aspect due to the role that it assumes in enhancing its
direction (Graff and Birkenstein 42). Without this, the reader or targeted
audience will be incapable of understanding the essay’s overall premise. Aside
from this, further citations were added to parts that clearly necessitated
textual support in an effort to make the argument persuasive. Without the
application of resources, the essay becomes less persuasive hence discarding
any influence imposed on the targeted audience (Graff and Birkenstein 123). In
order to assert a full understanding of the subject in question, more content
was added on sub-topics such as the women’s suffrage movements that opposed the
respective ban as well as Saudi
Arabia’s religious and political situation
in respect to its treatment of women. Usually, learners are advised to exhibit
a great understanding of the issues that they write about while asserting their
arguments (Candlin 90). For me to assume such a position, it was necessary to
add more ideas and synthesize them with support attained from outside sources
focusing on the topic in question. With the changes in question, it was
possible to develop an intricate yet informative essay that was particularly
informative concerning the plight of women in Saudi Arabia, specifically the
ban on driving, its consequences, justifications, and repercussions derived
from its expulsion.
Al Alhareth, Yahya, Yasra Al Alhareth, and Ibtisam Al Dighrir. “Review of women and society in Saudi Arabia.”American Journal of Educational Research 3.2 (2015): 121-125.
Benjamin, Medea. “Saudi Arabia is the most Gender-Segregated Nation in the World. Truth out. 2016. http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/37450-saudi-arabia-is-the-most-gender-segregated-nation-in-the-world Accessed 17 April 2018.
Candlin, Christopher. Academic Writing Step by Step: A Research-Based Approach. Equinox, 2016.
Coleman, Isobel. Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East. Random House, 2016.
Doumato, Eleanor Abdella. “Women and work in Saudi Arabia: how flexible are Islamic margins?”The Middle East Journal (1999): 568-583.
Farrell, Jeff. “Saudi Arabia’s Ban on Women Driving Must Remain because they ‘Lack the Intellect’ of Men, Say Leading Cleric. Independent. 2017. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/saudi-arabia-woman-driving-ban-remain-lack-intellect-men-sexism-sheikh-saad-al-hajari-islamic-leader-a7960501.html Accessed April 17 2018.
Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. “They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.
Hubbard, Ben. “Saudi Arabia Agrees To Let Women Drive”. Nytimes.Com, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-women-drive.html. Accessed 28 Mar 2018.
Hubbard, Ben. “Saudi Arabia’s Driving Ban and the Women who got it Lifted. The Independent. 2017. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/saudi-arabia-driving-ban-women-protestors-who-lifted-fought-against-sexist-law-a7993306.html Accessed 17 April 2018.
Manea, Elham. “Women in Saudi Arabia are caught in a System of Gender Apartheid. Deutsche Welle. N.d. http://www.dw.com/en/women-in-saudi-arabia-are-caught-in-a-system-of-gender-apartheid/a-17330976 Accessed April 17 2018.
Waxman, Olivia. “Saudi Cleric says Driving Hurts Women’s Ovaries.” Time. 2013. http://newsfeed.time.com/2013/09/30/saudi-cleric-says-driving-hurts-womens-ovaries/ Accessed April 17 2018.
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