Keys in Hand: Saudi Women and Driving

(As a note: Saudi women here refers to both Saudi-born women and women living in Saudi Arabia)

Over the years, Saudi Arabia has been under immense pressure to lift the ban on women driving through the kingdom. After protests, imprisonments, and rallying, Saudi women were finally granted that right late Tuesday night last week. Growing up in the Kingdom, I’ve heard my fair share of reasons why the ban was instituted in the first place, from religious clerics claiming that women in cars would cause an increase in promiscuity, to cultural experts explaining that Saudi men wouldn’t be able to handle their women having the liberty to drive away, and even a mythicized belief that driving would harm the ovaries.

Whatever the case, the ban was lifted and Saudi women will take to the bumpy roads of Saudi Arabia in the June of 2018. The revolutionary decision was influenced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as part of Vision 2030, a grandiose plan to landscape the kingdom’s economy and global reputation. It’s a victory for women, for sure, but it’s also a clever card played by the monarchy. The ban has earned the kingdom its fair share of criticism from allies and enemies alike, and given the current political climate, lifting the ban on women driving was a well-planned and tactical move giving the kingdom some positive attention.

To clarify, women driving in Saudi Arabia is not a change in religious values, because the ban had nothing to do with religious values in the first place. It was not Muslim women being banned from driving, it was women living in Saudi Arabia being banned from driving.

Now that it seems economically and reputably convenient, the ban has been lifted and we’ve been tossed the keys that unlock the shed where the metaphorical ladder to success is hiding.

There’s a humanitarian debate about whether the ban on driving was an oppressive measure on Saudi women, and perhaps it was. In the twenty-first century, owning a car –or being able to drive one- is quite literally the difference between being able to achieve your goals and finding yourself in a stagnant rut.

The right to drive is a win for Saudi women, yes. But I’ll let you in on a secret, as someone who has grown up in the kingdom… Saudi women have been winning anyway. Giving us the keys to the family car is a step too late, as we’ve already found a way around needing to drive. Between the carpools, the Kareem’s and Uber’s, flagging down taxis and family drivers, Saudi women have gotten to universities, workplaces, book club meetings and hospital rooms. We’ve reached the stages of TedX, international conferences, publishing houses and business meetings.

All that doesn’t take away from the convenience of being able to drive, though. It’s nice to know that in a couple of months we won’t have to deal with the hassle of nailing down transport just to go out and grab a coffee, but the years without driving have only solidified the fact that Saudi women can do almost anything they set their minds to.

With or without the car keys.

It is a win for women, but most Saudi women are taking the news with a generous helping of salt. Saudi Arabia remains, at least on surface, a conservative kingdom. The policy doesn’t roll out until June 2018, giving policy-makers and law-enforcers plenty of time to cushion the decree to ensure it remains in step with the country’s views, which are changing, for sure, but slowly. With the details of ownership and age restriction still shady, it’s hard to say how much freedom the cars will actually give us.

We’re driving down an intersection of sweet progress and the bitter realization that there will always be more to do. The cultural landscape of Saudi Arabia won’t change overnight, and there’s a lot to be said about the meme explosion, the not-so-witty badly Photoshopped photos of cars veiled in black burqas, the tacky comic art.

Women driving isn’t a joke. Women earning the right to drive after years of working hard to preserve their rights to exist in a conservative society, after years of double-guessing their abilities, altering their ambitions to fit into the boxes they were crushed into, isn’t a joke. It’s not material for a comic joke, it’s really not. I look forward to seeing women in the kingdom drive, doing normal things like getting lessons, buying cars, looking for car insurance quotes. Doing things any women in the 21st Century should be allowed to do.

Women earning the right to drive in Saudi Arabia is proof of a revolution that has been silently brewing on the down low for years. It’s about women gaining the agency to get in a car and drive away from the patriarchal values of a society that no longer stands for the religion it hides behind. And so, before you crack a joke, think twice.

Without cars, Saudi women have earned themselves global repute. With cars, who knows what’s next.

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