The kingdom’s ‘guardian’ system means females still face hurdles that males don’t
Saudi Arabia has issued driver’s licenses to some 70,000 women since June 2018, when a ban on women driving was lifted as part of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s campaign to modernize the kingdom.
The figure was revealed last week by Mohammed Al-Bassama, director-general of the Interior Ministry’s traffic division, to mark the opening of Saudi Arabia’s newest driving school for women, located at Al-Qassim University in Buraidah.
PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) estimated in a March 2018 report that there would be 3 million female drivers in the kingdom by 2020, and 9.5 million male drivers. The first figure represents approximately 20 percent of Saudi Arabia’s women.
Dr. Sanam Vakil, a senior consulting research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Program at the London-based Chatham House, told The Media Line that aside from the practical benefits of a driver’s license, women drivers in Saudi Arabia represented symbolic strides.
“Driving allows women greater independence and enables greater visibility of women in society,” she said.
However, Saudi women still face roadblocks in their quest to obtain a driver’s license. Driving schools are generally segregated by gender, and the seven women-only schools in the kingdom have more applicants than available slots.
It is also more expensive for women to learn to drive. Lessons for females cost between 2,000-3,000 riyals (the equivalent of $530-$800) as opposed to 450 riyals for males.
While women being permitted to drive in the kingdom is widely seen as a step forward, some experts believe that the reform does not address the core obstacle to the liberalization of women’s freedoms.
“While women can drive, the [concept of] male guardianship is the most serious impediment to women’s rights in the country, and it still remains,” Rothna Begum, a senior researcher in women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line. “The driving issue is a small issue in the vast scheme of things. The women activists who were fighting for it were hoping it would be the first step to eliminating the guardianship system.”
Women in Saudi Arabia are required throughout their lives to have a male guardian, whose approval is needed for a wide array of activities, including work and travel abroad. Although they do not need the consent of their guardian to attend driving school or obtain a license, they are still impacted by the system.
“If a woman leaves her house without the permission of her male guardian, he can call the police and have her arrested for being ‘disobedient,’” Begum said.
She further explained that if a woman leaves home over domestic abuse, her guardian can still call the police, who have the discretion of bringing her to a shelter or back home – both of which Begum described as “a form of confinement.”
If taken to a shelter, the woman is required to stay until she reconciles with members of her family, who must then come in and sign a pledge that they will no longer harm her. For single women, the only way out is through marriage.
Despite the softening regarding policies on women drivers, the kingdom’s public prosecutor revealed in early March that trials had started for some of the 17 women’s rights activists arrested last year for attempting to “undermine the security” of Saudi Arabia.
Human Rights Watch’s Begum called this a grave threat to women’s rights, explaining that it would not only mute the campaigners, it would discourage women from joining the movement.
“It serves as a warning for women who want to champion reform, that they can’t be activists or they will be indicted,” she said. “The message is: You cannot demand reform; you can only hope the crown prince will grant you reforms.”
Chatham House’s Vakil agreed.
“Any future liberalization of Saudi Arabian women’s rights,” she said, “is going to come from the top down, and not the bottom up.”
(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Studies)