On June 24, Saudi Arabian women took to the streets to drive for the first time as the Saudi monarchy lifted their driving ban on women. This comes as a part of the reforms headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who removed the ban in hopes of welcoming more women into the workforce.
However, the Saudi monarchy continues to oppress their women as discrimination runs rampant. Guardianship laws and customs remain in place, severely limiting women’s rights. These restrictions place women completely under the control of a man, forced to ask permission for several endeavors. Additionally, women’s rights activists who fought for the right to drive remain jailed even as the driving ban is lifted. Although Saudi Arabia has granted many women more freedom by eliminating the driving ban, their lifestyles still remain largely confining.
Guardianship laws govern the lifestyles of Saudi women, who are severely discriminated against. In Saudi courts, women carry only half the weight that men do. A Saudi court will not recognize a marriage if permission is not granted by the woman’s guardian. Guardianship of a woman transfers to her husband after marriage, and if he dies, to her son or back to her father. These men can make decisions regarding her life that she may have no say in. Women are expected to wear an abaya – a full-length robe – in public, and can be arrested for noncompliance.
Additionally, women can be jailed for not obeying their guardians, illustrated by the brutal treatment of Maryam al-Otaibi. Al-Otaibi fled her home, claiming she suffered abuse at the hands of her male relatives. Her father filed a complaint against her, saying that he had commanded her to return home and she had disobeyed. Upon her return, al-Otaibi was imprisoned for over 100 days until she won the right to free herself from her father. Her harsh punishment reveals the persecution of Saudi women that continues today. The guardianship laws that restrict women place power in the hands of their male relatives, leaving them fettered.
Long-held guardianship customs that are widely accepted in Saudi culture enhance the oppressive conditions that women face. Women require the permission of a guardian for many tasks – for example, pursuing higher education. If she goes abroad to study, a male chaperone customarily accompanies her. Additionally, women must be accompanied by a male relative while in public, although Saudi Arabia has designated some places for mixing of the genders.
Guardianship extends to financial matters as well: banks and employers oftentimes ask for a male guardian to approve savings accounts and jobs for women. Although legally permitted to live alone, women doing so often face landlords who will not recognize them as tenants. These oppressive customs contribute to the laws and create a guardianship system that makes it almost impossible for women to conduct basic tasks on their own.
Treatment of Women’s Rights Activists
Another development that highlights Saudi Arabia’s repressive attitude toward women is its approach toward women’s rights activists. On May 19, the Saudi government launched a smear campaign calling five prominent activists “traitors” after arresting them. Eight human rights activists currently remain in jail for their peaceful work. Some have been detained without charge for over a month and may face up to 20 years in prison for their activism.
Saudi Arabian women first protested the driving ban in 1990, when around 40 women drove their cars in Riyadh. Since then, protests have continued, and the royal decree to lift the ban came in September 2017. Although the ban has been revoked, many of those who fought for this, including Aziza al-Yousef, one of the country’s earliest driving activists at the age of 70, have been jailed. The harsh conditions that lobbyists for women’s rights face in Saudi Arabia further illustrate the country’s suppression of women.
The Drive Against Driving
Discrimination against women remains prevalent, even as women are gaining more rights. Many men do not want women to drive, and have taken to Twitter using a hashtag translating to “you will never drive.” Several men also believe that female drivers will make mistakes and will cause many traffic accidents. Some men, even as they support the lifting of the ban, are unwilling to allow their own female relatives to drive. A 42-year-old state employee, Khaled Abdullah Al-Houba, told CNN that “[w]omen can’t drive and they are unqualified.” He added, “Saudi women still don’t have the guts needed to drive.”
The Saudi National Center for Public Opinion Polls carried out a poll in March, indicating the following results: 61% of women polled wanted to drive. 41% of those who didn’t want to drive were driven by fear of traffic accidents. 27% of those who didn’t want to drive worried that men would harass them. In response to fear of harassment, the government passed an anti-harassment law, sentencing those found guilty to 100,000 Saudi riyals or up to two years in prison, with higher penalties for repeat offenders and those in a position of authority over their victims. However, many women continue to worry, unsure if the law will truly eliminate harassment or not. Despite the reforms being made, sexism remains widespread in Saudi Arabia.
Making a Change
In today’s progressive society, parts of the world remain embroiled in ancient customs. The Saudi government must take action to eliminate the discrimination against women – although the lifting of the driving ban signals a good start, there remains much to be done. The crown prince, who claims he is a reformer, must stand by his word and free the women’s rights activists who were thrown behind bars simply for speaking up. The government must repeal the ancient guardianship laws that possess no place in our society. Women should be free to make their own decisions, not chained to the whims of a male relative. The Saudi government must decisively and consciously free their women from male dominance, thus creating a generation of strong, capable women who will contribute positively to Saudi Arabia.
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