On June 24th, the women of Saudi Arabia woke up and did something radical: they got behind the wheel of their family car and drove. This was radical, of course, because up until that day women in Saudi Arabia were not permitted to drive in the only country in the world to perpetuate such a bizarre and arcane rule. But as the country-and the rest of the world-watched and cheered, there were burning, important questions to be asked, such as: why were the women jailed? why now? and what does this really mean for women’s rights in the kingdom?
The jailed women in question are several female activists who previously campaigned against the ban prior to the Kingdom’s announcement last September that women would be getting their licenses. In mid-May, a month before the ban was lifted, nine activists such as campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul (a prominent figure in the Women2Drive campaign who in 2014 tried to drive from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi) were arrested and detained. Six of them, al-Hathloul included, remain in jail, and women who have spoken out against their arrests have since also been arrested.
Why were the women jailed?
A Royal Court decree (more like gag order) issued the same day in September as the announcement lifting the ban, which ordered women such as the activists not to speak to the media, points to the possible reason why these women were jailed. Most likely, the activists were planning on speaking out or demonstrating around June 24th and the Saudi government got wind of it. But if the government was decriminalizing-well, more like officially permitting-women to drive, why would it silence and then jail those who had previously protested against it?
Because it’s all about appearances
Why were the activists jailed? Because the right to drive is not a right, it’s a gift–a present from a benevolent, Santa Claus government. Because the Saudi government, which is big (especially now) at portraying a certain image on the world stage, does not want to give any illusion to its people nor the rest of the world that there could be such a thing as protest and dissent within its own borders. Activists fighting for the right to drive? No, no, no. Women lacking the basic human right of mobility? No, no, no–the government “lifted the ban.” The government wanted it to look like it did women a “favor.”
The Vogue Arabia cover featuring Saudi princess perfectly embodies what the Saudi government wants to show: a princess who was not involved in public protesting (and who probably possesses an international driving license, I have not gotten to read the article) sitting glamorously in an expensive convertible. The choice of woman for the cover, which received plenty of backlash online (one of my favorite critiques was that of Filipino fashion kween Bryan Boy of all people), represents the royal court more than she represents the ordinary Saudi woman. No hard questions asked, just *poof!* magic from the sky.
The sad thing is that the Saudi government is truly responsible for this monumental change. This is in no way to try and discredit the women activists and their work, but to say that they “made the change” happen, as some news outlets implied, would be mostly wrong. In a Kingdom where democracy is not king, the ultimate say rests in the royal family. The Saudi government was well aware that its own female citizens drove and held licenses abroad; even the General Department of Traffic Director General, Mohammed al-Bassami, said in a statement on May 8th that “It is no secret that many women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia hold driving licenses from abroad.” The government was no doubt quite aware that the ban made the country seem backwards and peculiar and hindered its women and economy. But they decided not to lift the ban, not in 1990 when the first big campaign to drive happened, not in the 2000s or mid 2010s….not until Vision 2030 came about and the Kingdom decided its economy was in big trouble.
Why now? The economy, of course
Make no mistake: at its core, the lifting of the ban is not about women and giving them equality. It was not done from a human rights perspective. The ban was lifted to help improve the economy by: a) boosting car sales b) creating jobs for Saudi women (taxi/Uber drivers, female instructors, female traffic police) c) keeping money in the country instead of it leaving as remittances sent out by all the foreign drivers d) giving women more mobility so they can more easily get to/hold down a job. I know, I know: everything the Saudi government does nowadays I say is because of Vision 2030/their fear of impending economic doom in the face of a world without oil. But too often this seems to be the reason. Saudi Arabia cares about appearances too much now to have perpetuated the ban any longer, as it hopes to open up to rest of the world as a center of tourism, technology and finance.
The reason why I don’t think Saudi Arabia lifted the driving ban was out of newfound feminism and altruism goes back to the jailed women: if it really cared about women so much, it wouldn’t jail those who had previously spoken out on something that was about to change. If the government really cared about women, it would also lift the utterly prehistoric guardianship laws that are the biggest chains of all. If the government really cared about women, it would have done all of this a long time ago, because it had the ability to do so. But it did not.
I am not going to be one of those people to sycophantically wish Saudi Arabia congratulations on women driving when they should never have been banned in the first place. I would like to know why more world leaders have not questioned the country as to why it jailed women like Loujain al-Hathloul in the first place. I would like to know why Saudi Arabia never gave even the slightest explanation for doing so. I would, however, like to wish the women of Saudi good luck on their driving tests, and safe driving ahead.