By Alyssa Futa
The Saudi Arabian government lifted the driving ban on women as of September 26, ending their reign as the only country to withhold this right.
King Salman made this decree after decades of protests in Saudi Arabia by women’s activists. Since the driving ban on women was created in 1990, women have protested its existence. In November 1990, 47 Saudi women organized a convoy to drive through the streets of Riyadh in protest against the ban according to Human Rights Watch.
The women who participated in the protest were arrested and their male guardians signed pledges stating that the women would not drive again. The consequences of their participation also included some being suspended from their jobs and even the destruction of their work. For instance, Madeha Alajroush, a photographer, had 15 years of work confiscated and destroyed by officials from the Interior Ministry.
The mentality of Saudi Arabia in the 1990s heavily restricted women and saw driving as necessary to prevent adultery and other social ills, reports The New York Times. After the backlash, the protests ceased and resulted in a “decade of silence” until Wajeha al-Huwaider uploaded a video of herself driving in Saudi Arabia on International Women’s day in 2008.
Following this, the Women2Drive campaign launched in 2011. The campaign called on women with international drivers’ licenses to drive from June 17 onward. Manal al-Sharif became the face of the campaign after she was detained for 10 days after posting a video of herself driving. Many women were stopped and detained, one even sentenced to 10 lashes, which was overturned in 2012.
As the protests continued, men began to show their support online for women drivers until the lift of the driving ban this past September.
However, lifting this ban did not come without some qualms. Some women believe that the price of this new development is silence, according to Reuters. The public theorizes that the ban is being used to silence women’s rights activists and to draw attention away from human rights crimes in order to satisfy the leadership’s traditional support.
Others theorize that ending the driving ban is part of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform program aimed at diversifying the economy away from oil and opening up Saudis’ cloistered lifestyles, Reuters reports. The lift of the driving ban follows the opening up of more jobs to women in Saudi Arabia, which brought up the issue of commute to and from work.
Women’s rights activists have brought up that the government has yet to acknowledge the work of those who organized protests in the 1990s and the past 10 years. Some of the original protesters have even reportedly received phone calls from the Saudi government asking them to not comment on the lift of the driving ban.
However, most acknowledge the step forward the Saudi government has taken. Universities are starting to organize driving schools for women. In the words of Asma Alaboudi, one of the original protesters, “it is not just driving a car, it is driving a life.” Many expect that this is only the beginning of rights to be gained.