September 26th, 2017, is a memorable date for every Saudi woman. On that Tuesday an announcement flashed on the television news: King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud issued a royal decree allowing women to drive from June 2018.
This bold move received the approval of the Council of Senior Scholars, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body. Islam does not forbid women to drive and the ban on driving had resulted from traditional patriarchal values. A million thanks for this marvellous step – a vital move toward boosting the dynamic role of Saudi women.
Saudi women are naturally delighted. Social media have been showered with messages praising the decision to lift the ban – the subject of much debate in the country for many years. It is a step in the gradual breakdown of cultural obstacles discriminating against women.
It is not only a question of getting behind the wheel. It also empowers women and grants them trust, responsibility, confidence, freedom of movement, and independence. Women hold in their hands not only the key to their car but also the key for their advancement.
Women driving establishes a foundation for equal rights and opportunities for men and women. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises the dignity and worth of all people as human beings. Valuing the equal rights of men and women for the promotion of social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, it acknowledges that “everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.”
Women’s driving will benefit the whole family by fulfilling their daily needs and cutting back on the high costs of hiring drivers. In the first quarter of 2017 nearly 1.4 million non-Saudi men were working as household drivers (General Authority for Statistics). The annual salaries of foreign drivers exceed 25 billion SAR – almost 6.6 billion US dollars, not including the costs of recruitment, visas, residency permits, airline tickets, health insurance, accommodation and food.
Women driving will boost the economy in several sectors. According to Bank of America Merrill-Lynch Wealth Management, almost 9 million women, including 2.7 million non-Saudi women, are potential drivers. All those women will need new cars and the world’s largest car companies have begun to advertise targeting this new market.
“Welcoming the announcement, British-based Aston Martin said it was well timed for the arrival of the James Bond-associated sports car maker's DBX model, due in 2019” (Reuters).
After a period of industry stagnation, the lifting of the ban is estimated to increase annual auto sales in Saudi Arabia by 15-20 percent. Saudi banks also welcomed the end of the driving ban in expectation of a growing demand for car loans. New job opportunities will open in the transportation sector and many private taxi services such as Uber and Careem will hire Saudi women drivers.
The lifting of the ban is the latest step in a long development process bridging gender disparities and breaking new ground in social, cultural, educational and economic fields. The empowerment of Saudi women started in the early 1960s with the opening of the first schools for girls. Another landmark in their gradual empowerment was the appointment of the first female minister in 2009 when Norah Al Fayez was made deputy education minister for female education affairs.
In 2013, thirty women were appointed to the Shura’ Council to take part in the decision-making process, and in 2014, women were granted the right to run and vote in local elections. In 2016, Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud was appointed vice president for women’s affairs of the General Sports Authority in Saudi Arabia, paving the way for women’s participation in sports for health, competition, and professional opportunities.
This year has seen a rapid series of new reforms. In February 2017, three Saudi women were appointed to top jobs in banking and finance, breaking through the glass ceiling. In April, Riyadh was appointed to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. In May, by royal decree women were no longer required to have a male guardian’s permission to request government services and could apply for their own passports without the consent of a male relative.
On September 23rd, women were allowed for the first time to participate from the family section of King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh in National Day celebrations. And just a week ago, Saudi women versed in religious studies were granted the right to issue fatwas in the country: another historic move for the involvement of women in Islamic Jurisprudence approved by a large vote in the Shura’ Council. Furthermore, on September 29th, a new law endorsed by the king was approved to criminalise sexual harassment. The new law targeting the protection and safety of women will be implemented in 60 days including serious punishments.
The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, seeks an enlightened path of social and economic reforms, believing that women as well as men have a positive role to play in society. He is keen on empowering Saudi women to participate in the building of their country within the confines of the Islamic Shari’a and moderate social traditions.
Under his father’s leadership, the dynamic Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud is adopting a progressive approach. The “Prince of Youth” is driving Saudi modernisation and seeks rapid social and economic reforms for men and women. His Vision 2030 long-term economic plan pursues economic diversification and less dependence on oil by reinforcing technology and non-oil industries. He also plans to develop the national sectors of health, education tourism and recreation.
The crown prince seeks to promote and reinvigorate social development to build a strong and productive society. Acknowledging that Saudi women represent a force in their country, he seeks their greater participation in all fields. Vision 2030 aims to increase the participation of women in the labour market from 22% to 30%, and reduce unemployment rate among Saudis from 11.6% to 7%.
Education is an important element in empowering women and in opening opportunities in the labour market. Today, women university graduates have surpassed 50 per cent and developing skills training is a must for a competitive market. Being allowed to drive is a major instrument for women’s more flexible participation in the labour force.
Misunderstanding about Saudi women still prevails in the western media and it is important to raise awareness about their positive status.
A Saudi woman enjoys all the rights of women stated by Islam, including the right to knowledge, property, inheritance, marriage, divorce, to keep her name after marriage, and to work and earn money and to open a bank account without the presence of a male relative as long as she is at least 18 years. But clearly more reforms are to come, albeit gradually according to the pace of Saudi society and the full implementation of laws and regulations.
So, Saudi women, now your time has come. Will you choose a James Bond car?
Dr. Mona AlMunajjed is an award - winning sociologist, author and adviser on social and gender issues.
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