In late September, as Saudi Arabia was celebrating its 87th anniversary, women were allowed into the King Fahd sports stadium for the first time. Because of the country’s specific laws that aim to segregate men and women in public spaces, women still had to use separate entrances than men and were seated in an order that placed them far from single men. This seemingly insignificant change made a world of difference to women in the kingdom. Reuters interviewed women during the celebration: “‘It is the first time I have come to the stadium and I feel like more of a Saudi citizen. Now I can go everywhere in my country,’ said 25-year-old Sultana, green and white flags painted on both cheeks as she entered the complex with her girlfriends. ‘God willing, tomorrow women will be permitted bigger and better things like driving and travel.’”
It took Saudi Arabia 87 years after being officially founded in their current state to give women the freedom to simply enter a sports stadium. Soon after this, the country announced that they were lifting their infamous driving ban in June 2018. This law banned women from driving, unless they wanted to be faced with arrests and other unfair consequences. With the recent lift of the driving ban, we are forced to question their motives. If the kingdom was actually passionate about liberating women in their country, wouldn’t they have lifted the ban sooner? Wouldn’t they have lifted the ban 30 years ago when women staged a protest, rather than taking away these protestors’ passports, jobs and physical freedoms?
Many have argued that King Salman and the royal family are using the ban lift as a diversion from their recently failed regional policies. The driving ban would serve as positive publicity and help gain the country some respect and a positive reputation. Robert Fisk writes, “And the act begat the headlines and the headlines begat a tweet from the President of the United States who himself begat a $110bn arms contract with the Saudis three months ago. And so it came to pass. For 24 hours, the world was told about the lifting of the driving ban rather than the chopping-off of heads, the arrest of human rights activists and the horrific war in Yemen.” It’s possible that the Saudi Arabian king and his heir do not care about the freedom of women, but lifted the ban for their own advantages.
While it shouldn’t matter that the ban lift might be a publicity stunt, it does. Although the announcement is something to celebrate for thousands of women, it’s much more complex than that. Sultana, quoted earlier in the Reuters article, said, “I‘m so excited to learn how to drive. This will be a big difference for me. I will be independent. I won’t need a driver. I can do everything myself." But there have already been threats made by men who learned that women would be driving alongside them. In the past, the men in power have stated that female drivers would distract male drivers, be sexually assaulted, be promiscuous, corrupt society and even have their ovaries damaged by driving. That mindset is unlikely to have suddenly changed now. Unless the Saudi Arabian kingdom is fully committed to protect and serve women equally, this ban being lifted is a disappointment.
If Saudi Arabia actually cared to empower women, they would also work toward completely ending guardianship laws. These laws require all women to have a male figure in her life that is responsible for making important life decisions. Women need permission for marriage, to travel and to obtain passports. According to Human Rights Watch, these laws have improved, but are still in place. Saudi Arabia still places restrictions on basic rights for women, showing that they are not fully committed to treating women equally. Although the driving ban being lifted is a step in the right directions, it may just be a publicity stunt, part of a larger scheme, which isn’t much to celebrate. The day when Saudi Arabia erases their systematic inequalities completely, they will have accomplished something significant.
Priyanka Bansal is a Rutgers Business School first-year double majoring in business and journalism and media studies. Her column, “Call for Change,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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