After much outside pressure and great efforts of activists, Saudi Arabia announced that women will finally be able to drive. This global victory for women’s rights, was announced by Saudi Arabia on Tuesday night.
Saudi Arabia is infamous for following some of the most restrictive laws outlined in the Islamic faith, many of which focus on limiting the rights of women. In 2016, the World Economic Forum released a report on gender equality that highlights this, placing Saudi Arabia 141st out of 144 countries ranked. Although this royal decree is a large step, Saudi Arabia remains very restrictive.
The decree, which officially goes into effect in June of 2018 allows women to now apply for driver’s licenses without male permission. The change has been a long time coming; especially for women such as Fawziah al-Bakr.
In 1990, al-Bakr and 47 other Saudi women participated in the first ever protest against the driving ban, in which they were arrested for driving around the capital. Al-Bakr heralded this accomplishment simply, saying in an interview with the New York Times that “We (Saudi women) have been waiting for a very long time.”
Almost thirty years later, the women’s fight has been validated, but they are still fighting for more of the rights that Saudi women lack compared to other countries around the world. The list is long so bear with me. Saudi women lack the right to; Marry, divorce, open a bank account, have surgery or even get a job without permission from their male guardians. Saudi women lack the right to mix with members of the other sex in most social settings, appear in public without wearing a full black abaya, open businesses, take loans or apply for a national identification card or passport without male input. Saudi women cannot retain custody of children through a divorce, eat at restaurants that don’t have designated family sections, or receive equal inheritance to their male counterparts.
Keep in mind that in Saudi Arabia, women carry the same legal status as minors for their entire lives.
Because of these restrictions, Saudi women and those that live in restrictive countries such as Saudi Arabia still have a long way to go. Reform and steps toward equality are hard in oppressive countries like this and stories like that of Malala Yousafzai are perfect examples. Malala has been a catalyst for much change in the education of women, but the steps taken to change were drastic and almost fatal. Malala was shot three times at point-blank range simply because she was a girl going to school. Once she was hospitalized, she garnered world attention which then helped her change the status of education for girls in Pakistan and the Middle East. Activists like Malala know there still is a lot of work to be done before they even come close to equality.
Empowering these activists, young or old, could do a lot of good. If Malala would have been able to have world attention before she was shot, would things be different? If that group of 47 Saudi women would have had the world behind them in 1990 would you be here reading this? Support helps activists fighting under threatening and repressive regimes, and offers a way for the rest of the world to be a part of the change.
Although this decree is indeed a large victory for women’s rights, the battle is truly just beginning. Allies to the cause cannot be distracted from the many remaining injustices that still remain, but use thsi win to add more fuel to the activist’s fire. And to those who were not aware of this, now is the time. That list is a reality, and an opportunity to remember the privilege we might hold in our own countries or the ground we have yet to make up in our own fights.
Let us not forget the 3 countries ranked lower than Saudi Arabia either. Syria, Pakistan, and Yemen, in that order, still have lower gender parity and fewer rights for women than countries such as Saudi Arabia. Programs like the National Organization for Women and the Malala Fund continue the fight for global equality valiantly, and no country is even to the full level of equality. In the aforementioned World Economic Forum report, Iceland was ranked first out of the 144 countries, with a rating of .874 out of a possible 1. That still leaves room for improvement for even the highest-ranked country. Feminism is indeed on the rise, and regression is certainly not in the vision of activists and allies alike.
Photo: Craig Whitehead on Unsplash