Saudi Arabia: women take the wheel

Saudi Arabia: women take the wheel


Women in Saudi Arabia are about to drive legally for the first time. While the few who have licenses are excited, activists warn that the road to full rights will be long.

Saudi-Arabien Frauen in der Fahrschule (Reuters / A. Jadallah)

This Sunday (24.06.2018), the driving ban imposed on women will be part of the history of Saudi Arabia. Currently, very few women have a driver’s license: until early June, only ten had obtained one. However, that number is expected to increase soon. The Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information estimates that some 2,000 women will obtain a license in the coming weeks.

The freedom to change a tire

Women not only spend hours polishing their practical driving skills, they are also learning theoretical and technical skills in the country’s driving schools. There they learn how to change a tire, how to correctly place their hands on the steering wheel and how to evaluate speed accurately.

A report by the Reuters news agency suggests that most of the learning takes place in front of a video screen. A young student said: “The first thing I’m going to do when I get my license is take my family for a walk, we’ll go somewhere to celebrate.” Another student wants to take her mother for a ride as soon as she gets her license: “We’ll be just the two of us in the car, I’m very excited.”

Saudi-Arabien Frauen in der Fahrschule (Reuters / A. Jadallah)

Driving is an obvious right, there must be more reforms

Ali Adubisi, of the European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights, based in Berlin, says that in the end the decision to allow women to drive is for the kingdom part of a larger image campaign. Adubisi tells DW that lifting the ban is undoubtedly a big step that will be very positive for women. But, on the other hand, he says that the government has done something to give women something that should be seen as an obvious right.

The activist says that it would also be wrong to assume that the government actively promoted giving women the right to drive. “The reform has much more to do with the pressure and demands of Saudi society and, to some extent, the international community, which is what led to the change.” Adubisi notes that women began calling for the revocation of the driving ban for the first time in the early 1990s.

In addition, he adds, the right to drive is only the first of many reforms that must be made to make women legally emancipated. Adubisi tells DW that to this day women are still denied many fundamental rights and continue to live in the custody of men. For example, they are not allowed to travel alone or sign contracts on their own. “Women suffer greatly under these restrictions every day,” says Adubisi. “Therefore, if we are going to celebrate the right of women to drive, we must also demand that they be granted other rights.”

Saudi-Arabien Frauen in der Fahrschule (Reuters / A. Jadallah)

Oppression in the style of the old school

In many cases, the government persecutes women’s rights activists in the old way. This was clearly illustrated at the end of May, when several recognized activists were arrested and imprisoned. They were accused of having “suspicious contacts with foreign organizations” that supported their efforts. In addition, they were accused of recruiting “several individuals in sensitive government positions” and offering financial support to “enemies abroad.”

Madeha Alajroush was among the detainees. The 62-year-old photographer and psychologist was actively campaigning for the right of women to drive in the early 1990s. Her protests antagonized conservative clerics in the country, who called her a prostitute. All his photographic works were also burned.

Saudi-Arabien, die saudi-arabische Autofahraktivistin Madiha al-Adschrusch sitzt in einem Auto (picture-alliance / dpa / O.Weiken)Madeha Alajroush, activist for the right of women to drive since the early 90’s.

Unsustainable lifestyle

The recent arrests, says Adubisi, were a warning: “The government is sending the signal that women should not demand more … If you are not careful, following the subtext, you could be imprisoned just like these well-known feminists.”

However, Alajroush hopes that the country will continue to change. Months before his arrest, he told DW journalist Fanny Facsar that the change was inevitable. “Our lifestyle is not sustainable, there can not be economic growth if half of society is not allowed to develop its potential, which is why I have always been certain that the country would one day change. When I myself have been waiting for 30 years for the change to come. “

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