Published October 5, 2017
Manal al-Sharif, a women’s rights activist, is author of “Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening.”
Saudi Arabia is finally freeing itself from the grip of decades of religious fundamentalism. The key to this change? Car keys. On Sept. 26, the Saudi government formally announced that it would lift the ban on women driving. Saudi writers have compared the struggle that led to this day to the battle of the royal decree to open the first government girls’ school in the kingdom. The decree came three decades after the founding of Saudi Arabia. But this revolutionary moment is about so much more than driving. It is about changing the very direction of the country.
Denying women the right to drive has imposed huge costs on Saudi citizens. Up to 1.5 million foreign men must be paid to work as drivers. Many neither speak nor read Arabic, and some of these “drivers” have never driven a car before. A paltry 15 percent of Saudi women work outside their homes, in part because hiring a private driver can cost between one-third and two-thirds of a woman’s salary. Saudi men must be responsible for the transportation of their wives, sisters and mothers. In desperation, women without access to male drivers have put boys as young as 9 years old behind the wheel, propped up on pillows to see over the dashboard. It is no wonder that the kingdom has among the highest traffic fatality rates in the world.
Beyond the social and economic costs, literally forcing women to remain in the backseat has hobbled Saudi Arabia’s global progress. It has the world’s second-largest proven oil reserves but ranks behind Cyprus and Malta on the United Nations Human Development Index. Now at last we have a path forward: an open Saudi society for men and women.
Driving is a start. It can help end the larger oppressive guardianship system, which requires women to obtain permission from a male relative for the most basic decisions and activities. (Interestingly, the kingdom has announced that a woman will not need permission from her guardian to obtain a driver’s license.)
Today, guardianship and control over women are less about ancient traditions inside the kingdom — after all, the prophet Muhammad married a successful businesswoman — than about fundamentalist religious forces enforcing their grip on society. Many of the current restrictions on women were imposed after the neighboring Iranian Revolution and the armed seizure of Mecca’s Grand Mosque by Sunni radicals for two weeks in 1979. Following those events, women disappeared from Saudi state television and newspapers, coupled with a huge crackdown on women employment. Fundamentalists also renewed their calls to end women’s education. But the current generation of Saudi women has refused to listen. Women now make up more than half of all Saudi university students — 51.8 percent as of 2015, according to the Ministry of Education.
For the first time, I dare to dream of a different Saudi Arabia in the coming years. I have 10 wishes for women’s equality in my country: I wish for a kingdom where the guardianship system ceases to exist; where at 18 or 21 years of age, women are recognized by law as adults; where women can study for any college degree that they want, including the “male-only” degree of engineering; where women can work in any field they choose; where women who have been jailed do not need a male guardian’s permission to leave; where it is a crime to marry off a child; where women are appointed as ambassadors and ministers and heads of organizations; where Saudi mothers can pass their citizenship on to their children; where the law protects mothers and children; and where women can compete as athletes on any playing field.
More change is coming. For the first time in the kingdom’s history, leadership is passing to a younger generation. Saudi Arabia has long been known for its octogenarian kings, but today the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is only 32. As he told The Post’s David Ignatius in April, “I’m young. Seventy percent of our citizens are young. We don’t want to waste our lives in this whirlpool that we were in the past 30 years. We want to end this epoch now. We want, as the Saudi people, to enjoy the coming days, and concentrate on developing our society and developing ourselves as individuals and families, while retaining our religion and customs. We will not continue to be in the post-’79 era. That age is over.”
Seven years ago, I cried on the streets of Saudi Arabia. I cried because after a doctor’s appointment, I could not find a male driver to take me home. I had to endure harassment as I walked alone. I had an American driver’s license and I knew how to drive, but the government would not allow it. To drive while female was punishable by arrest and jail time.
Indeed, in May 2011, I was arrested and jailed after I drove on Saudi streets as part of the June 17th movement to protest the ban. Last week, I cried again, but my tears were tears of joy. In June 2018, seven years after that protest, Saudi women will be free not only to drive their own cars but also to be the drivers of their own lives.