It’s June of 2018. And as of Sunday, June 24, women in Saudi Arabia are finally legally able to drive.
It’s astonishing when you think about it, but until yesterday the kingdom of Saudi Arabia had maintained a ban on women driving — the only one in the world. It was one of the most visible elements of differential treatment of men and women in that country. The decision to finally allow women to drive is part of an effort by the Saudis to liberalize and modernize their benighted internal policies, which have received a lot of international criticism over the years. And, as is so frequently the case, the move also has an economic component. The Saudi economy has taken a hit because of oil prices, and allowing women to drive is expected to increase the employment of women and allow them to make more of a contribution to the gross national product.
Not surprisingly, many Saudi women took to the streets in cars to celebrate their ability to do something that women the world over have taken for granted for more than a century. “I feel free like a bird,” one woman said. “The jubilance, confidence and pride expressed by Saudi women driving for the first time in their country, without fear of arrest, brought tears to my eyes,” another one wrote. And Saudi women posted videos of themselves driving on social media.
But let’s not get too excited about the loosening of repressive policies in Saudi Arabia, because a number of activists who strongly advocated for great women’s rights have been jailed and remain behind bars, even as the ban against women driving has been lifted. Some believe that the jailing is intended to placate the ultra-conservative religious leaders who remain a significant force in the country, and also to send the message that only Saudi leaders — and not activists advocating for changes in Saudi policies — can produce reforms in the kingdom.
It’s a sign that, while lifting the ban on women driving is welcome, Saudi Arabia has a long way to go. And it’s also a reminder that, in 2018, there are still a lot of repressive policies out there against women that still need to be addressed.