By Sophie Minter
Nearly 17 decades have passed since the women’s rights movement started in Seneca Falls, New York. Over those decades it is evolved into the intersectional feminist movement many people are familiar with now, championing issues that women and minorities face globally.
Recently though, the issue of gender equality has gained traction with increasing calls for “developed” countries, to lay down more groundwork for equality, for states that still hold archaic, often barbaric belief towards women. At the centre of most feminist conversations is Islam’s view on women, in particular the position that women are held in, in Saudi Arabia. Recently there has been a momentous decision, which has brought these discussions to a pause with women being given permission to drive. But is there cause to celebrate?
The term “ban” used in many news outlets following the announcement creates images of feminist legislators in Saudi Arabia tearing up papers covered in sexist laws and ideas that were behind the so called “ban”. However, this was not the case. In fact, there was never a “ban”.
In reality, on the 26th of September 2017, the King of Saudi Arabia passed a decree permitting women to drive. So, contrary to many western opinions there was never any law preventing women from driving. So why then, did they not? As Manal Al-Sharif makes clear in her Ted Talk, it was often religious leaders who pushed the “ban”. The most cited reasoning behind this originated in the Shura Council (a legislative council, which aids the king in the legislative process), after a supposed UNESCO report was presented to them, backed by one of the council’s members. The report suggested that in countries where women were allowed to drive there were higher percentages or crime, rape and prostitution. The council report concluded that, in order to “save” the society it would be recommended that women should be prevented from driving. It was with a slight twist in irony, Saudi Arabia, a country often condemned by UNESCO, was now a case of supposed success. Perhaps the report was right, if one were to forget the issue of validity and reliability, with Saudi Arabia ranked 44th out of 100, on the crime index. But whether or not the report is true, the fact that it created a stigma against female drivers suggests any attempts to reverse this are likely to fail
This leads us to the question of, now that women are allowed to obtain driver’s licenses is the country changing? Arguably no.
One of the main reasons is because there never was a law, but instead, just a destabilising stigma which suggested that female drivers were some form of sexual devils, cruising around and corrupting their communities, perhaps akin to British teenage boys speeding through Egham, windows down, caps on, music up, corrupting the pensioner population (both equally ridiculous). Therefore, it seems illogical to suggest that the decree can flip societal beliefs with a small scribble in ink.
As well as culture, it seems unlikely that this decision will make a massive impact due to the other restrictions placed on women under the regime. Despite liberalising recently, Ba’athist traditions underline many of the decisions, customs and lifestyles in the country. That is not to say that Islam is not a feminist religion because in many cases it is with more Muslim women willing to identify as feminists than Christian women (The Conversation) and with many Islamic feminists such as Aisha, holding prominent positions within the religion (Kristof, 2009). However, Ba’athist traditions, which are the foundations of the repressive regime that prevents women from being seen as equals, as shown by Freedom House Index reports, view women and Islam very differently. These traditions have meant women are essentially treated like minors, often getting punished by the “morality police” (NY Times). This name sheds light on the fear that the regime and the society has towards women and the “dangers” they present.
So, when one considers the fact that many of those supportive of this ideology are clerics, it seems increasingly less likely that, in a country where religion underlines the entire system, the decree represents nothing other than an attempt to silence half the population. Culture and society, as Al Sharif notes are much more formidable and relentless enemies than a regime, especially when these values come from fear of the unknown. Therefore, this decree is unfortunately not a step forward.
Kristof, N. and WuDunn, S. (2010) Half the sky: How to change the World, London: Virago Press.