Samantha Cooke

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman ordered reform by way of Royal Decree, permitting women to obtain driving licences. The country, which has been under severe pressure from activists and members of the international community to reform its policies, is recognised for its human rights abuses. Prominent amongst these is gender inequality and the shadow status of women within the state. The Royal Decree however, is not instigated immediately. The authorities claim it will be implemented by the end of June 2018, although women are now able to drive without risk of being arrested.

In some ways this announcement marks another step forwards for women in the state. Saudi Activist Manal al-Sharif said she cried when she heard the news. Not only are women now permitted to drive, but they do not have to gain male consent to obtain a driving licence and there are to be no restrictions on where they are able to drive.  It is one of a series of progressive changes within Saudi Arabia over the last few years. In 2015, women were permitted to participate in local elections for the first time – as both voters and candidates. This move also stemmed from decades of campaigns and eventually, a Royal Decree. Female participation in the country’s 87th National Day for the first time prompted backlash against the government’s decision despite segregation within the public sphere still occurring, with women being seated separately from men. It all appears to be in accordance with the King’s Vision 2030 reform plan whereby the country’s economy will be less dependent on oil, lifestyles will be less isolated and some aspects of Saudi life will be modernised, all whilst maintaining its traditional base.

But it sits within a country which continues to have a strict adherence to Islamic Law. Women continue to need approval from male relatives before engaging in certain activities (to get a job, to socialise with other women etc) -  specifically, those which require them to leave the family home. So, whilst this reform provides women with increased independence from the gendered hierarchy prominent within the country’s laws and traditions, this ‘liberation’ is limited. Since the announcement, accusations that the government is manipulating verses of Sharia have been made by conservatives with those opposing the decree arguing that it will result in inexcusable mixing of the sexes. Traditionally, gender segregation has been prominent with Saudi society with women not being permitted to associate with non-familial men and requiring permission to leave the house. This reform potentially serves to challenge these rules which have emerged from interpretations of the Qur’an.

According to verses 2:282 and 4:11 of the Qur’an, women are considered to be half as valuable as men as witnesses and in inheritance. These perceptions of women’s inferior status have translated into other areas of society, with restrictions on employment, socialising and attending events also resulting in bans or stringent gender segregations, whether legal or socio-traditional. And it’s not only in Saudi Arabia where such instances have occurred. The Iranian case of Ghoncheh Ghavami’s peaceful protest regarding female attendance at volleyball matches also gained international attention and caused the Iranian state’s approach to gender segregation and rights to be challenged.

The inferior position of women within society and understandings that they are weaker than men has also been reflected in comments following this decree. Some have argued that women are lacking in of intelligence and thus not as capable as men when it comes to driving. This argument not only stands in contrast to the high levels of education which are gained by many Saudi women, but reinforces stringent gender stereotyping on binaries of strength and weakness. Thus, the highly gendered rhetoric which follows this legal reform speaks to the continued oppression of women within the state. Whilst women are able to obtain licences and drive on any road, it remains to be seen whether male permission to purchase a car or drive a vehicle will be required. This has already been vocalised on social media platforms, with the hashtag #thewomenofmyhousewontdrive quickly appearing. Previous reforms to gender equality in the country have seem similar reactions and have, as a result been less ambitious when implemented. Changes to local election rules for instance saw tradition being maintained when it came to female presence in the public sphere. All women running as candidates were required to speak from behind partitions or to have a male representative.

Given the strong conservative opposition to the latest proposals, we can see why some are questioning how this will change the country and asking if the reform was agreed in order to silence activists. This result is a victory for those who have campaigned for decades to have the ban lifted and alter the legal standing of women in society, but there are signs that this may challenge traditional social interactions, by removing a reliance on men to move around in the public sphere. We must also consider the impact this decree will have on those whose livelihoods depended on chauffeuring women. Whilst not all women will obtain a driving licence and restrictions on their ability to make use of this change in the law may well stay in place within the private sphere, there will most probably be a strong impact on the number of women using these driving services. This indicates the socio-economic structuring around and reliance on female seclusion and restricted rights.

Despite the international attention that this latest decree has gained due to its potentially progressive nature, celebrations may be premature. This move, alongside the enfranchisement of women and their attendance at the National Day celebrations speaks to the potential of increased gender equality in the country. But whether (and how) it will actually be implemented is another question. It remains to be seen how much further Saudi Arabia is prepared to go with regard to addressing issues of gender equality and challenging interpretations of religious text without removing the traditional socio-religious identities with which so many nationals associate themselves. The price women are paying for this is their silence, with some stating that they have been intimidated into not commenting on the changes. On paper then, Saudi Arabia appears to be moving forward with regard to increasing women’s rights. But whether this can be successfully implemented at the societal level, specifically within the private sphere, is another matter altogether. 


Samantha Cooke is a Teaching Fellow in International Security at the University of Warwick. She tweets @DrSamCooke.

Image: Biphoo CC BY-NC-ND