The only way is forward for Saudi women, but it is only through more male support that they can truly triumph over enduring restrictions
Perhaps the most striking image from Saudi Arabia’s historic lifting of the women’s driving ban is not that of female motorists taking the wheel, but of them accepting pink roses from police officers in Riyadh’s early morning hours of June 24.
In any other city, the pictures that circulated on social media would have been translated as an act of chivalry and support for women’s advancement. Some feminists would have even disputed the roses’ pink shade, arguing that gender should have no colour associated to it.
The crucial point that many have missed, however, is that this small gesture of kindness goes against the kingdom’s strict gender segregation rules, which frown upon even the most basic of male-female interactions.
So while the driving ban’s lifting provides women with unprecedented freedom in a society where male guardianship practically renders them second-class citizens, the officers’ gesture suggests changing attitudes will not stop at driving.
And more evidence of this can be seen in the outlooks of the country’s prominent business titans, including the billionaire Kingdom Holding chairman Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal. In a video posted on his Twitter account, the prince is seen accompanying his daughter Reem on her first ever drive on the roads of Saudi Arabia.
The transformational change might never have taken place, of course, if it weren’t for Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud’s ambition to modernise the kingdom through a series of reforms to boost its oil-dependent economy through the inclusion of 50 percent of its workforce – the nation’s women.
Just allowing women to drive could add as much as $90bn to Saudi’s economic output by 2030, according to Bloomberg Economics, impacting sectors ranging from petrol to motor retail.
The country’s women will be reminded, once more, that they are subjected to myriad restrictions in everyday life”
Princess Reema Bint Bandar, deputy of planning and development for the Saudi Arabian General Sports Authority (GSA), called the strategy “pure economics”. “This is the future, this isn’t something you go back from. This isn’t a singular activity,” she told CNN.
She noted the changing attitudes in her own field, where females are now allowed participation in the Olympics and can visit sport arenas for male matches.
In February this year, women were also told they could join the military and intelligence service. In the same month, a senior cleric stated that under Islamic law, women were not required to wear an abaya, urging for it to be regarded as a personal choice.
Other reforms include the re-opening of public cinemas for the first time since the 1980s, as well as the lifting of a ban on music concerts.
The changes met with mixed reactions, however, revealing the long road ahead. Conservative mentalities are so deeply ingrained in Saudi that when it sent female athletes to the 2012 London Olympics, hardliner clerics roundly denounced the competitors.
Women’s ability to learn to drive will still depend on the willingness of theirs male guardians; husbands, fathers, sons or uncles. Once the wave of optimism dies down, they will be reminded that they are subjected to myriad restrictions in everyday life.
Women still need their guardian’s consent for activities ranging from travel to getting married and signing contracts. More restrictions include trying on clothes when shopping or reading an uncensored fashion magazine.
While it will not be easy to modernise the world’s most gender-segregated nation, with the Crown Prince at the helm of the drive, it seems to be the only way forward for the fluctuating kingdom.
As an Arab woman observing these changes from afar, it all goes back to the supportive, rather than dominant, gestures of male police officers handing roses to eager female drivers. It will leave stubborn hardliners no choice but to walk the line – one which will lead to a stronger, sturdier and ever-progressive Saudi Arabia.